By Rob Rains
The Cardinals went into the winter meetings hoping to fill two needs in their projected lineup – a catcher and another bat that could offer protection for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
They believe they took care of both of those goals with one move on Wednesday.
Multiple media reports said the Cardinals and free agent Willson Contreras were in agreement on a five-year contract. The deal is pending a physical and has not been officially announced by the Cardinals. The reports said the deal is worth a total of $87.5 million, which would make it the largest free agent contract with a playerwho had not previously been with the Cardinals.
Contreras, 30, has spent the first seven years of his career with the Cubs, where he earned three All-Star selections and four times hit 20 or more home runs, including 22 in 2022.
Contreras was considered the top free agent catcher on the market this winter.
He was one of the players the Cardinals had been interested in for weeks but they went into the meetings this week in San Diego also considering the possibility of trading for a catcher, notably Sean Murphy of the Oakand A’s.
When Oakland’s asking price for Murphy became more than the Cardinals were willing to pay they shifted all of their attention to Contreras.
John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, had reiterated since the end of the season that finding an offensive upgrade at catcher was the team’s top off-season priority.
Contreras will succeed the retiring Yadier Molina as the Cardinals’ primary catcher while Andrew Knizner is slated to return as the backup.
With the combination of Molina and Knizner starting all but a handful of the Cardinals games in 2022, the team’s offensive production ranked among the worst in the majors with nine home runs, 48 RBIs and a .209 average.
Contreras had received a qualifying offer from the Cubs, meaning the Cardinals will forfeit their second-round pick in next year’s amateur draft as compensation.
Contreras had made his interest in the Cardinals’ known, even asking about the team and its clubhouse culture with former Cubs teammate Jose Quintana last summer.
About two hours before Contreras and the Cardinals agreed to terms, the free agent Quintana signed a two-year deal with the New York Mets.
The five-year agreement is likely a longer deal than the Cardinals would have preferred but Contreras can also be available for more work as the designated hitter in the later years of the deal.
Contreras started 72 games behind the plate for the Cubs last season and also appeared in 39 games as the DH, posting a .243 average and driving in 55 runs to go along with his 22 home runs.
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Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports