As Albert Pujols grinned and rounded the bases at Busch Stadium on Sept. 4 for his 695th career home run — an uncanny, pinch-hit blast that meant his career against the rival Cubs would end on a game-winning homer — Willson Contreras began to see his future from the opposing dugout.
There he was wearing his gear and stepping behind the plate, feeling the pulse of that packed house in downtown St. Louis. To his left he spotted Nolan Arenado, to his right Paul Goldschmidt, and stitched on the jersey beneath his chest protector, he imagined, two birds on a bat.
Pujols’ last swing against the Cubs sparked Contreras’ first glimpse of being a Cardinal.
“I was looking around, looking around at the ballpark, looking around the fanbase and the team and how the guys were playing against us,” Contreras recalled. “I said to myself, ‘I’d like to be a part of something like that.’ The team that is always looking forward to win. I did put myself behind the plate with the St. Louis Cardinals for the first time that day, and I really enjoyed that feeling.”
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Asked to describe the sensation, Contreras smiled.
“I’m inspired,” he said.
Contreras’ vision became his reality Friday as the three-time All-Star starter and the Cardinals finalized a five-year, $87.5-million contract. Freshly stitched with a No. 40, that Cardinals’ home jersey he imagined — he wore it during a press conference at Busch Stadium. According to sources, the contract includes a no-trade clause and an option for 2028 worth $17.5 million, bringing the total possible value of his contract to $105 million, the highest ever for a free agent signed by the Cardinals who had not previously been a Cardinal.
Contreras, 30, will be the first new opening day starter at catcher for the Cardinals since 2005 and, as one of the top offensive catchers, he’ll likely bat fifth. That means he’ll play at the position last held by Yadier Molina and hit in the spot last manned by Pujols.
How the Cardinals came to see him clearly in their future happened 10 days ago, during a face-to-face meeting at a luxury hotel in Orlando, Florida. Manager Oliver Marmol and John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, left with a new view of an old rival.
“The other thing that really pushed us here, rather than somewhere else, is he’s a confident man, and he’s not afraid to step into this role,” Mozeliak said. “Some people might not like the challenge of having to fill these shoes. He knows he’s going to be Willson Contreras. He’s not going to try to be Yadi. And that’s impressive. … We left that meeting and there was this unspoken ‘I am the guy’ from him and we agreed. He was the guy for the job.”
Contreras felt the meeting with the Cardinals’ brass hinged on how he could answer a question.
“Who is Willson Contreras on and off the field?” he said. “I know that when you play against me, you might not get the best perception of myself. Because I play for you not to like me. When you’re on my team, you’re on my side. I tell these guys, ‘You’ll love me because I do everything that I can for the team.’ There was a connection, and it was about winning.”
During his visit with his wife and agents to Busch Stadium on Friday, Contreras said he was surprised to bump into a teammate, pitcher Andre Pallante. The rookie had been running and working out at the ballpark. Contreras heard first from Adam Wainwright before the contract was final, and he said the veteran right-hander joked about making 329 starts together — a reference to the major-league record Wainwright owns with Molina. Contreras has already had text exchanges or conversations with Giovanny Gallegos and Jack Flaherty, and he said studying the pitchers — his “brothers,” he called them — has already begun.
He had been thinking about being a Cardinal for a few months, and he even urged his agents to find a route to a deal with them. In bidding completed Tuesday night, the Cardinals outpaced Houston, the defending champion, and the Angels.
The Cardinals had almost a decade to plan for this moment, for the day they’d have to identify the catcher who followed Molina. They had visions of a homegrown answer, although they began to peer through other lenses this past summer, Molina’s last. At the trade deadline, the Cardinals explored acquiring a catcher with an eye toward 2023. They had a similar focus going into this winter and engaged in talks with Oakland and Toronto about deals for catchers. Marmol said competition offered him a chance to watch candidates, scrutinizing them as fits.
“You start to think about what catchers are going to be free agents, and what’s possible,” Marmol said. “You don’t really love (Contreras) when he’s across the way. The reason other teams see him that way is because he’s good and he beats you, and you don’t love it. Now, having him on our side — it fits well with the rest of the guys we do have.”
The Cubs did not make an overture to re-sign Contreras but did make him a qualifying offer, thus costing the Cardinals their second-highest draft pick in 2023 and $500,000 off their international spending budget. The Cubs entertained trades for Contreras during the season, but when they didn’t mean he had two tearful, ovation-filled goodbyes at Wrigley Field as the last position player from a core that once included Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, and him. Only the ivy stays rooted at Wrigley.
Signed by the Cubs in 2009 as a teenager in Venezuela, Contreras made his major-league debut in 2016. Like Molina for the Cardinals in 2004, Contreras was his team’s rookie starter at catcher for the final game of the World Series. In his first year, the Cubs did something they hadn’t in 108 years — winning a championship — and within three years Contreras started two All-Star Games for the National League. Since his first full season as an everyday catcher, Contreras ranks in the top five at the position for home runs (105), RBIs (330), on-base percentage (.348), and slugging percentage (.456).
His .808 OPS since his debut leads all catchers with at least 1,500 plate appearances, just ahead of Philadelphia’s JT Realmuto. Contreras’ 365 RBIs since his debut rank sixth among catchers, just behind Molina’s 377.
After slipping on the jersey he’d only daydreamed about and before taking questions, Contreras brought up Molina. A classic social media misunderstanding early in his career had prompted a retort from Molina about how the young whippersnapper on the north side needed to “respect” his elders. But from it bloomed mutual respect, exchanges of texts, nods during games, and tips that Contreras seeded into his play behind the plate. Multiple times Friday, Contreras referred to Molina as “my idol.” He said that whatever career he has with the Cardinals it was Molina who “set an example for the future.”
Back in September, Pujols’ eighth-inning, pinch-hit homer off a lefty reliever the Cubs curiously allowed to face him led to a 2-0 victory and the Cardinals’ series sweep. Molina did not appear in that final game, but he went four-for-seven in the series with three RBIs in one game. As he let his imagination wander about free agency and the different places he could go, he felt the fit of the Cardinals’ jersey and felt what it would be like not stepping out of Molina’s shadow but into the spotlight he made brighter at their position.
“I’m inspired by just succeeding Yadier Molina,” Contreras said. “I’m inspired by having Arenado on my left side, having Goldschmidt on my right side. I’m inspired. … Watching Yadier Molina there, playing against us, and then putting myself behind him, just envisioning it, is an honor. I love the feeling. I made the best decision that could be made.”