If you’ve read my articles before, you know that I’m generally not a negative fan or a negative writer. But that’s changing this year. And I’m not trying to overreact. In fact, I’ve been one of the more patient fans this year while watching the team struggle on the field. But the sequence of roster moves made by the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday has changed my tune.
I originally had nothing to say about this Cardinals team, instead writing the start of a minor league oriented piece for today. But that changed the second I saw the news of the day. The Cardinals have gone off the rails.
So, with this piece I want to dive into my thoughts on the most recent decisions made by the front office in an effort to drag this team out of the cellar of the NL. Let’s get started.
The Catcher Conundrum
What is happening? I truly don’t understand how Willson Contreras is the problem with this team. He currently ranks ...*checks notes*...2nd in fWAR on the Cardinals. Second. He’s third if we want to count the pitching staff, but I’m not focused on that here. Willson Contreras has been the second best position player on the team by WAR this season.
So, what needs to change? Obviously, Willson Contreras needs to get yanked out of his natural position for a player worth -1.7 fWAR in his career.
Make it make sense.
But the worst part about this decision isn’t even that Andrew Knizner is going to start at catcher. It’s that Willson Contreras is going to spend time at DH and in the outfield. Yes, in the outfield.
The Cardinals aren’t just considering using Willson Contreras in the outfield. They will be.— Katie Woo (@katiejwoo) May 6, 2023
Contreras won’t catch much over the next couple of weeks. He’ll be used primarily as a DH and corner outfielder. More soon on @TheAthleticMLB
It might surprise you to learn that Contreras has spent 236 innings in the outfield in his professional career and in that time, he’s posted -2 DRS and 0 OAA. So, not great but also not that bad.
But that’s not even the point.
The point is two-fold. First, when Contreras is DHing, Nolan Gorman isn’t. That’s the guy with a 137 wRC+, which ranks third on the team, behind only Paul DeJong (179 wRC+) and Paul Goldschmidt (156 wRC+). Not exactly the guy you want sitting on the bench.
He could start at second base but then that means Brendan Donovan moves to the bench. And even if Donovan hasn’t been able to match his production at the plate this year, he’s been better than Andrew Knizner.
The second problem is that the Cardinals just spent $87.5 million on Contreras to be their catcher for the next 5 years. Now he’s out after 33 games. And maybe it’s not a long term thing. The Cardinals are reportedly hoping that the familiarity of the pitching staff with Andrew Knizner will help solve the issues with the pitching staff. At least in the short term.
But what’s the problem with Contreras? Is it defense? He’s looked rough at times but he ranks average to slightly below average in the Statcast metrics for blocking and framing. Is it his arm? Definitely not. That’s always been the strongest part of his defensive game.
So what’s the problem? The only possible answer is game calling. But if that’s the problem, the coaching staff can simply take over game calling duties. I don’t see how the answer is Contreras losing his job behind the plate.
This simply feels like making a change to make a change. And, honestly, the team can’t play much worse, but this is still a weird move that doesn’t make a lot of sense and only adds to the clog in the outfield.
And there’s perhaps an even bigger underlying issue here. All the reports about Contreras’ defense said that he was average at best, so what were the Cardinals expecting? It’s almost like they signed an average to below average catcher and then were disappointed when he was average to below average.
If the Cardinals wanted someone closer to Yadier Molina, then Contreras was never going to be the guy.
And I don’t even think it was a bad signing. In fact, I’m fine with it. But if the Cardinals are willing to splash the cash to Contreras they need to be able to live with good offense and average or worse defense. That’s the deal. Paying Contreras to be an expensive DH was never going to be a good idea. And I expected him to eventually end up as a DH, I just didn’t expect it to happen 33 games into his Cardinals tenure.
Point blank - this feels like a panic move.
The Other Moves
And this really just feels like culmination of a series of questionable moves. Let’s go back to Spring Training. For starters, the Cardinals decided not to stretch Zack Thompson out in the spring, deciding to put him in the bullpen from the start. So what happened? He made 11 appearances and then went back to Memphis to stretch out as a starter.
The problem is that he has yet to make an appearance longer than 1.2 innings and he’s only thrown 2 pitches all year. So, when he makes his first Triple-A start, he’ll have to dust off his slider and his changeup. That’s a weird and inconsistent development plan for a young pitcher.
And then there’s the Jordan Walker issue. A lot of people are mad about him getting sent down when he was a 101 wRC+ hitter at the major league level. I’m not one of those people.
He posted -0.2 fWAR after predictably playing poorly in the outfield and hitting too many balls on the ground. Considering his 45.5% groundball rate in Double-A last year and his inexperience in the outfield, it wasn’t hard too surprising to see Walker’s debut play out the way it did.
So the problem isn’t that the Cardinals sent Walker down, it’s that they put him on the roster in the first place. Starting Walker at the major league level was a big risk, and it wasn’t a risk worth taking with Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill, and Alec Burleson already on the roster.
It would have been better for Walker to start at Triple-A and simply develop there until he proved he was ready for the majors.
And those are only the big decisions. There are a variety of small ones that simply don’t make sense. There’s the Taylor Motter thing, first off. He went from getting DFA’d to getting re-signed to a major league contract to getting DFA’d again, all while keeping Juan Yepez in the minor leagues.
And I understand the whole Juan-Yepez-needs-to-play thing, but that’s really only the case if the Cardinals view him as a starter in the long term. And where would he play? It’s better for him to learn how to be an effective part-time player and it’s better for the Cardinals to have his bat on the bench.
But there’s also the most recent decision to keep James Naile on the roster and send Guillermo Zuniga, he off the 100 mph fastball and nasty slider, back to Memphis. That simply feels like a pretty clear way to limit the upside of the bullpen, especially since the team has been vocal about the lack of strikeouts coming from the pitching staff.
Now, I want to stop here because I don’t want this article to sound like a negative stream of complaints because that’s not the way I like to write. So I apologize if that’s what it sounds like.
Rather I wanted to highlight that the decisions made about this roster have been nearly as bad as the play on the field. And I haven’t even covered all the decisions.
So, what’s the point of this article? I honestly can’t tell you because i don’t have answers. I’m looking at things in hindsight (though foresight also caught some of these mistakes) to point out that this organization started with some poor decisions and seems to have moved into full blown panic mode. Because if playing Willson Contreras in the outfield isn’t panic mode, I don’t know what is.
But the weird thing is that the Cardinals almost seem to be putting the pitching struggles on the shoulders of the catcher. It seems to me that the better way to improve the pitching staff would be to improve the rotation, and, with Matthew Liberatore sitting in Memphis, that is a distinct possibility. Yet Liberatore is still sitting in Triple-A while Andrew Knizner is now the starting catcher.
That’s really all I have to say. I’m disappointed by the most recent move but that’s really just the last move in a string of questionable moves. The Cardinals may be bad on the field but they’re also struggling with strategic roster decisions and seem to be avoiding the real problem - a bad (or underperforming) rotation.
I apologize for the extremely negative article today. I hate to write pieces that are this negative, yet I felt like these moves warranted some negativity. Plus, there’s not many positives to cover about this team or this organization right now.
I am planning to take a more positive spin on Tuesday with a look at some minor league leaders in the Cardinals organization but that is subject to change based on what happens in what seems to be a period of change with the major league roster.
As always, thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Sunday.