The Willson Contreras Outfield Experiment Doesn’t Make Much Sense

Just a little over a month into the 2023 season, the Cardinals have decided to make a massive gamble with its high-prized free agent acquisition from this past winter in Willson Contreras. The former All-Star catcher will move into a hybrid role with the Cards, as he’ll see time both in the DH slot in the outfield. It’s a move that doesn’t make much sense, given the alignment of its roster.

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A Look at Contreras

When the Cardinals signed Willson Contreras this past winter to replace franchise icon Yadier Molina behind the plate, it was rather obvious what St. Louis was getting. The 30-year-old’s a proven power hitter with four 20+ home run campaigns under his belt, impressive strength, and good bat-to-ball skills. However, Contreras is a bat-first catcher with below-average framing skills, but one with a strong arm.

In his first season with the Cardinals, Contreras has hit .277/.354/.411 with a pair of home runs and 14 runs driven in. The power numbers are down, but that can be said for multiple players on the Cardinals at the moment. As far as Contreras’ defensive numbers are concerned, he still has the good pop time, but the framing metrics are below-average.

But after a slow start to 2023, St. Louis will look to do something unorthodox. The Cardinals called up former Nationals catcher Tres Barrera from Memphis (AAA) to split time behind the plate with former top prospect Andrew Knizner. Knizner’s a better defender behind the plate, but has yet to be a reliable bat. Entering the day on May 6, Knizner owned a career OPS+ of 62, well below the league average.

As for Contreras, he will shift to a OF/DH role. Contreras has played 236 career innings in the outfield, most of which were spent in left field. Most recently, Contreras saw an inning of work in left in 2021. The 30-year-old does have a good arm, but his below-average foot speed and the existing outfield talent makes this move a puzzling one for the Cardinals.

A Look at the Cardinals

At 10-24 after the first 34 games of the 2023 season, the Cardinals need something to change — that much is obvious. However, it’s hard to scapegoat Contreras as the problem when so much has gone wrong with St. Louis thus far. 2022 NL MVP Nolan Arenado‘s had a slow start, while the Cards’ pitching staff has been quite rough. As if May 6, the Cardinals owned a team ERA of 4.71. That figure ranked 21st in the Majors.

According to Molina himself, he believes that the issues lie within the pitchers and their inability to execute on the mound.

Nonetheless, the St. Louis front office decided to make a change that seems geared towards making it more comfortable for its pitching staff. It’s an interesting one, but a move that won’t make it easier for the Cardinals to construct a lineup. The Cardinals have a plethora of outfielders in Tyler O’Neill (IL), Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, as well as Jordan Walker in the Minors, all of whom could lose playing time moving forward.

Additionally, 2B/3B Nolan Gorman — who’s cranked seven home runs and owned a 141 OPS+ — has spent nearly half of the 2023 season as the team’s DH as the Cardinals split infield time between him, Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan, and more recently Paul DeJong. Gorman’s out with a back injury, but could have returned to the lineup on May 6 had he been able to play the field.

Instead, Contreras slotted in to the DH hole for the Cardinals. See the problem?

While the Cardinals could move a player or two in the summer or offseason to clear the logjam, it doesn’t change the fact that Contreras is better suited to be a catcher on this roster. He might not be the best defender behind the plate, but Contreras won’t likely be an average defender in the outfielder despite the good arm. Considering that, putting Contreras in this kind of position could lead to more harm than good.

The next few weeks for the Cardinals won’t be easy, as St. Louis may need to contemplate selling this summer, as opposed to buying. The move to push Contreras off the plate, though, won’t make it easier.