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St. Louis Cardinals Name Yadi's Heir: Willson Contreras

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

On 12/7/2022, the St. Louis Cardinals have signed the heir apparent to Yadier Molina here in St. Louis at the catcher position. Rather than handing the reigns over to Andrew Knizner and/or Ivan Herrera - their groomed supposed heirs apparent (after having traded previous heir apparent, Carson Kelly, in the Paul Goldschmidt deal), the Cardinals have signed 31 year old free agent and former Chicago Cub Willson Contreras to a 5-year, $87.5M contract. The average annual value on that contract is $17.5M per season. The breakdown of the contract, per this tweet, which also notes that Contreras has a full no trade clause on the first four years of the contract and a 10-team no trade clause in the last two years of the contract (including the option year).

  • 2023: $10M

  • 2024: $18M

  • 2025: $18M

  • 2026: $18M

  • 2027: $18.5M

  • 2028: CLUB option $17.5M with a $5M buyout.

Fangraphs' writer Ben Clemens projected him to sign a 4-year, $80M contract at $20M a year. The Fangraphs community crowdsourced Contreras at a 4-year, $70.6M contract at $17.7M a year. Signing him for slightly less than AAV came at a different price; Contreras and the Cardinals signed a 5 year length of contract instead. Was that fifth year necessary to sign him? Apparently. Was it worth a $1M ($0.2M per season) difference over the course of the contract? Probably not. Was it worth a $12.5M ($2.5M per season) difference over the course of the contract? Probably. That's all based on hypotheticals, however.

So let's get down to the brass taxes here, what we really want to know. Is Contreras' signing a good one or a bad one?

The short answer: Unknown, To Be Determined, <enter any other lazy cop out synonyms>

Luckily for you readers, if you like my work, you know that I don't believe in short answers for anything.


Does this writer like the deal?

Yes and no. Before getting into the nitty-gritty statistics of it all, I think we can all agree that John Mozeliak has made it very clear this offseason that catcher was the #1 priority for the St. Louis Cardinals' brass going into the winter meetings. In fact, it might have been priority #1, #2, and #3 with them only having 3-5 priorities going into the season.

I have a few "on the surface" likes and dislikes that I'll detail below. I'll go over him being a significant offensive upgrade but only at catcher. I will go over how he'll be a significant defensive downgrade at catcher, but maybe not all as bad as you'd think.

However, I am always in a state of unease with unknowns and change. I think no matter who we got, I was going to be a little skeptical of the catching this year. However, with the way the Cardinals operate, I think I would have been more sure on a guy like Sean Murphy, who can both hit like Contreras AND be a gold glove potential guy. I get that the price point was past John Mozeliak and company's proverbial "puke point" that we are so accustomed to hearing about. But the defense is more what we're used to seeing out of catchers here in STL than anything else. I think my mind would have almost been set more at ease with Christian Vazquez, despite him not being as valuable (or as expensive, though) of an overall player - as crazy as that sounds.


What's so good about the signing?

Willson Contreras is, without a doubt, a significant offensive upgrade at the catcher position for the St. Louis Cardinals. Contreras is projected to be a top ten catcher offensively. He's likely to fall in the 4th to 10th range with a bunch of others, in some muddled order. Contreras, per Steamer, is projected for a 116 wRC+. (Readers, remember that a 100 wRC+ is exactly league average by wOBA while every point above or below that is one percent above or below league average.)

Meanwhile, Andrew Knizner is projected for a 92 wRC+ and Ivan Herrera a 97 wRC+. That difference in and of itself is pretty large. What makes the significant offensive upgrade even more, well, significant is that Contreras' 116 wRC+ projection is actually lower than his career 118 wRC+. Contreras very well could be better than that projection.

Not only that, but Ivan Herrera's cup of joe last year resulted in him with a -7 wRC+ over 22 plate appearances. (Keep in mind, Herrera was 22 years old and has a ~110 wRC+ for AAA at 21-22 years old, a ~100 wRC+ at AA at ages 18 and 21, a 102 wRC+ in A+ ball at age 19, and much higher wRC+ values in the low minors at ages 17-19.)

Andrew Knizner, meanwhile, has had a bit more than a cup of joe in the bigs at 553 plate appearances, with a combined 68 wRC+ to his name entering his age 28 season. It was only slightly better (79 wRC+) with more consistent playing time for the first time in 2022.

In short, while projections give Contreras an edge of just over 20 points of wRC+ over our current catchers' projections, actual numbers look like it could be closer to a FORTY point difference in wRC+!

Comparing to potential future production is hard, so let's look at this in a more concrete manner. Willson Contreras' offensive production from 2020-2022 produced a 241/346/444/790 line good for a 119 wRC+. The St. Louis Cardinals catcher position produced an offensive output over that time of a 226/281/320/601 line good for a 69 wRC+. The last three years, the Cardinals' newest member was 50 points of wRC+ better than the Cardinals' catchers, including the once great Yadier Molina.

In fact, my own personal projections system has Willson Contreras projected out to be approximately 180 points of OPS better than Andrew Knizner over a full season in 2023, while also accumulating about 125 more plate appearances than Knizner in the process.

If you're into the more advanced stats, Contreras' xwOBA has been between the 69th and 94th percentile int he last four years. His xSLG between the 61st and 85th percentiles. His xISO between the 58th and 83rd percentiles, and his xOBP between the 58th and 94th percentiles. His Max Exit Velocity each year has been 89th percentile or better. He barrels up balls at a great rate, he walks well, and he is fast for a catcher with an above average sprint speed (barely at this point, but still above average).

We'll get into the bad portions of his defense later, part of which includes pitch framing; however, his pitch framing has improved over the last few years. That's especially true in the upper portions of the strike zone, so we'll see if new Cardinals pitching coach Dusty Blake wants to have the Cardinal pitchers take advantage of that or not. Also his pop time this year behind the plate was in the 79th percentile league-wide, which is his lowest since 2017; so that aspect of his defense has been consistently pretty good to very good!


So what's bad about the signing then?

Well, the fact that catchers typically do not age gracefully is not even the first thing I thought of, but it's kind of a big one. From ages 26-30 (and yes, this might seem cherry picked but I saw it on Twitter so I went with those numbers here), Yadier Molina had a 115 wRC+ and then from ages 31-35 (the same age years that the Cardinals will have Willson Contreras under this contract) Yadi had a 99 wRC+. Remember, a 100 wRC+ is a league average hitter (not league average hitting catcher - that bar is lower).

From ages 26-30, Willson Contreras had a 116 wRC+. Remember, Yadier Molina aged very gracefully for a catcher all the way through his age 35 season and he still went from fairly well above average to nearly exactly average as a hitter in the next 5 seasons combined. That does not mean that Contreras will also drop to a nearly exactly average hitter for his next five seasons, but it also doesn't mean that he'll even age as well as his predecessor either. There's a LOT of risk here.

The thing that actually came to my mind immediately that could be construed as "bad" was Contreras' defense. Even though he has a good pop time and has improved portions of his framing, it's not all good.

First of all, Willson Contreras has averaged only 96 games behind the dish in the last three seasons (per 162 team games). Yadier Molina averaged 100.5 in his final three seasons at ages 37-39. Contreras was just 28-30 years old in comparison. He's just not as durable as our future Hall of Famer was.

Secondly, Willson Contreras has been worth +11 DRS and -40 runs framing (per Fangraphs) for his career in just over 5,000 innings. Yadier Molina averaged +50.5 DRS in the same amount of innings and was a +50.23 runs framing in the samea mount of innings over the portion of his career covered by that statistic. So in the same amount of time, Yadier Molina was about 90 runs framing better than Contreras and 40 DRS better than Contreras. And that includes Yadi's precipitous decline from 36-39 years old.

Cardinals starting catchers are expected to play 1,000+ innings per season. Per 1,000 innings, the differences between the two are +18 runs framing and +8 DRS, with both of those values favoring our former catcher. And this is if Contreras can even catch as much as 1,000+ innings a season, what I believe is the team expectation of a starting catcher. Contreras has only hit that mark ONCE in his career.

If Willson Contreras is being paid $17.5M a year to be the catcher for the Cardinals, he sure as heck better play those innings behind the plate. That's where the bang for the buck is coming with his offense being so much better than what Cardinals catchers have produced in the past several seasons. That difference will not be as stark in being used as a designated hitter, like he was 39 times for the Cubs last year and an additional 18 times for the Cubs in 2020 when the pandemic rules allowed for DHing in the National League.

However, if we're talking projections, Contreras' wRC+ projected by Steamer is 116. Here are the others between 115 and 140 for the Cardinals and their positions.

  • 1B Paul Goldschmidt 140

  • 3B Nolan Arenado 130

  • OF Lars Nootbaar 126

  • OF/DH Juan Yepez 122

  • 2B/OF Brenden Donovan 120

  • 1B/OF/DH Alec Burleson 118

  • OF Tyler O'Neill 118

  • OF Dylan Carlson 115

For those keeping track at home, with no catchers or shortstops listed, that's 8 players for 7 spots on the diamond already. That means that Willson Contreras, if he's not catching, is not anywhere near a clear upgrade at the DH position over what the Cardinals have on their roster - by the projections. So if Contreras cannot up his innings to over 1,000 innings, perhaps well over 1,000 innings, his $17.5M per season upgrade for the Cardinals might come at the cost of only upgrading the team 60% of the time.


But what about the arbitrage?

So, trading for Sean Murphy, or any of the potentially quite better options with better contracts for the Cardinals didn't happen. There is both good and bad news on that front as well. Let's list them in alternating fashion.

Bad: This costs the Cardinals $17.5M per year, starting in a year in which it's been reported that they were only wanting to add about $20M outside payroll to what they currently had on the roster. The only moves that can be made now would be via trade or above the payroll that they originally were quoted as wanting to have to start this season.

Good: This move for a catcher did not cost the same prospect collateral that getting a Murphy or Alejandro Kirk might have cost them.

Bad: This move for Contreras did not just cost the Cardinals money. Due to Contreras turning down a qualifying offer from the Chicago Cubs, this will also cost the Cardinals about 1/10th of their international bonus pool ($500k) and also cost them their 2nd round draft pick in the 2023 draft. Not only that, but this move also gives their rival Cubs a pick between Competitive Balance Round B and the third round of next year's draft as well.

Good: Were the St. Louis Cardinals to actually go out and sign another free agent who has declined a qualifying offer (typically quite good players in their own right), they would only have to give up a 3rd round pick and more international money - giving them a slight edge potentially in free agency if they're willing to go beyond their contractual obligation "puke point" and closer to a $200M-$210M payroll.


So make your own conclusions on this signing by the Cardinals. It's not my money, but I also am worried about how it affects future spending for this front office. It is a huge step in the right direction, but not the step I was hoping that they could make (either Kirk or Murphy on a cheaper contract and then sign a bigger bat than Contreras from the pure money aspect). I'm cautiously optimistic about how huge of a difference the bat can be and yet also very concerned about how the defense will look and affect the pitching staff.

Your thoughts?

*Thanks Nick Childress for the awesome cover art.


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