Cardinals moving Willson Contreras off catcher months after he signed $87.5 million contract

Willson Contreras will move off catcher for the time being. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Willson Contreras will move off catcher for the time being. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Cardinals seem to already have buyer's remorse about one of their biggest offseason acquisitions. Willson Contreras, who signed a five-year, $87.5 million deal with the team in December, is being moved off catcher just a month into the 2023 regular season, according to Katie Woo of The Athletic.

Manager Oliver Marmol confirmed Saturday that Contreras will see more time at designated hitter. The team called up catcher Tres Barrera to replace him behind the plate. Marmol told reporters that Barrera and Andrew Knizner will split catching duties, with Knizner seeing the bulk of action behind the plate in the coming weeks.

The day after initial reports that Contreras would see time in the outfield, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told The Athletic on Sunday that Contreras would play in the outfield only in an emergency situation.

“We won’t have him in the outfield,” Mozeliak. “I know that came out yesterday, but after talking with him, it’s basically going to be more in the DH role right now. And there’s light at the end of the tunnel to get back behind the plate.

“I don’t anticipate [Contreras in the outfield] unless there’s some sort of emergency reason. Everything was moving quickly yesterday. A lot of things were getting out there. His hope is he gets a chance to get behind the plate. That’s what we’re going to work toward.”

The moves come as a major surprise, considering that Contreras signed a significant contract with the club in December. He has played the vast majority of his games at catcher since being called up to the majors by the Cubs in 2016. Early in his career, however, Contreras played some games in the outfield and at first base, and he has played three innings at third. Contreras has not appeared in left or right field since 2021, when he was used in right for an inning.

This news could have significant implications for the rest of the Cardinals' roster. Contreras joins an already talented — and crowded — group in the outfield. Before Contreras joined the fray, many believed the Cardinals would have to trade one of their outfielders. Contreras' position change could create a playing-time logjam, especially once Tyler O'Neill returns from a back injury.

Making Contreras a full-time designated hitter comes with issues as well. Nolan Gorman has been used as the team's primary designated hitter and is in the midst of a breakout season. Gorman, 22, is hitting .265/.348/.531 with seven home runs in 112 plate appearances.

Gorman can play second and third base, but those positions are filled by Brendon Donovan and Nolan Arenado. Gorman won't take Arenado's spot, so second base seems more likely.

Contreras hasn't played poorly in his first month with the Cardinals. He's hitting .280/.361/.421 with two home runs in 122 plate appearances. The bat is still strong, though probably not good enough to justify Contreras' $87.5 million contract.

A trade feels likely. Given the Cardinals' overcrowded lineup, someone will have to go. It won't be Contreras and his mega-deal, so one of the team's younger players, such as Gorman or Dylan Carlson, could be on the move. O'Neill is also a candidate to be traded once he returns.

That might benefit the Cardinals in the short term. The team's rotation is off to a brutal start, and trading one of their promising hitters for an equally promising pitcher could help them rise in the standings after starting the season 10-23.

Even if a trade helps, moving Contreras off catcher this early in his deal is a bad sign. He was brought in thanks to his ability to play one of the most demanding positions on the field. If the Cardinals already think Contreras can't handle catching, they'll need his bat to remain strong well after he ages out of his prime. That's a tough ask, especially for a player whose value was tied to locking down a key defensive position.