Column: St. Louis Cardinals are trying to make Willson Contreras feel loved after putting him in a ‘timeout’ behind the plate

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Wilson Contreras was the talk of major-league baseball Monday as he returned to Wrigley Field with the St. Louis Cardinals.

But instead of returning as the conquering hero who got the long-term deal he craved, Contreras was already the subject of trade talk on MLB Network, which spent part of the morning speculating where the former Chicago Cubs catcher would go only five weeks into the first season of his five-year, $87.5 million contract.

Cubs fans gave Contreras a warm welcome Monday before the Cardinals’ 3-1 victory, though the marquee at Murphy’s Bleachers threw a little shade on him:

“Hey Willson, How are things goin’ in St. Louis?”

Everyone knew, of course.

The decision by Cardinals management to take the catcher’s glove away from Contreras for the time being and make him a designated hitter and left fielder was widely seen as an indication they already had soured on the veteran.

Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said that isn’t the case and the decision was being “proactive” instead of reactive.

They knew how people would react to the news, which came with the Cardinals off to an abysmal start and the pitching staff putting up numbers one might expect from an expansion team.

“I honestly feel like we could’ve potentially ended up in a worse situation long term than what we’re experiencing today,” Marmol said. “This is just noise. This goes away.”

That’s wishful thinking, but when you’re 11-24 you have to dream big.

The Cubs probably should’ve installed a psychiatrist’s couch in the visiting manager’s office for Marmol, who tried his best to explain his feelings of love for Contreras without explaining the reason he doesn’t want him catching his pitchers.

Cardinals designated hitter Willson Contreras watches the video board as the Cubs play a clip honoring their former catcher before the game Monday, May 8, 2023, at Wrigley Field.

Cardinals designated hitter Willson Contreras watches the video board as the Cubs play a clip honoring their former catcher before the game Monday, May 8, 2023, at Wrigley Field. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

Marmol on Sunday called together Contreras and starters Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty to talk about the decision and let Contreras know they still believed in his catching ability. He called it a “huge step” in making Contreras feel loved and appreciated.

“At the end of the day, optically, people are going to run in a lot of different directions with it,” Marmol said, adding they feel “pretty damn good” about the results.

Wainwright said they “poured into” Contreras that they “love this guy, we’re glad he’s here, we want him to be our guy” for the long haul.

“No one has given up hope on Willie,” he said. “That was the main message that we wanted to share with him, and I think he took it well. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone has ever told him that.”

Well, Joe Maddon certainly did when he managed the Cubs, helping Contreras mature from an emotional hothead to a three-time All-Star who was instrumental in their 2016 championship. Their relationship was so strong, some players referred to Maddon as “Willson’s dad.”

Whether this method works won’t be known until Contreras returns behind the plate, whenever that may be. As his penance, Contreras has to sit or stand next to Marmol during games and observe things. That sounds like a timeout for talking out loud in class.

So it’s not Contreras’ fault, Marmol reiterated. But they just felt something had to be done, and they decided to do it now while letting him know it’s temporary.

“The timing of it sucks, where we’re at,” Marmol said. “But it’s a small blip in the story over the next five years if you just think of a three-week mark in April, or a two-week mark in May, or whatever month we’re in. Thank God it’s not April.

“At the end of the day, he needed to hear from some meaningful guys that: ‘You are our guy. We love you. We trust you. And the only way we get to where we want to get to is with you helping us behind the plate. And here’s how we’re going to do that.’”

The optics of the decision could not be worse.

Former Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter texted Wainwright asking “what in the world” was going on.

Wainwright responded: “Just relax. It’s going to be a couple days.”

Cubs management spent two years refusing to extend Contreras’ contract in spite of his solid performance on the field and the unconditional love of Cubs fans. President Jed Hoyer never had a bad thing to say about Contreras but obviously didn’t feel he was worthy of an extension for reasons Hoyer never explained.

The Cardinals jumped at the chance to sign Contreras to replace franchise legend Yadier Molina, but then they put him in a timeout, catching-wise, making it look like buyer’s remorse.

“When you think about the investment over the next five years, I feel really good about what we have in place,” Marmol said. “It may not make sense to many people at the moment. I promise you it will.”

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Replacing Molina never was going to be easy, but the collapse of the Cardinals staff on Contreras’ watch couldn’t be ignored.

“Yadi’s presence here has been documented, and he’s certainly hard to replace,” Wainwright said. “But it certainly doesn’t speak to being 14 games under .500 going into (Sunday). Yadi is the greatest catcher that ever lived in my opinion, but does he make us go from 10 over to 14 games under? That’s on us.”

Wainwright, who returned from a groin injury Saturday to make his first start, said this year’s team is largely the same as last year’s, though he also pointed out that he and other pitchers were at the World Baseball Classic instead of getting acclimated with Contreras in spring training.

“This month is a perfect storm of badness for this team,” he said. “We didn’t lose all those games because of one player. We lost a lot of games for a different reason seemingly every day.”

Cardinals fans haven’t had to deal with this kind of start since 1973, when they went 8-23 before rebounding to finish 81-81 and one game out of first in the mediocre National League East. Marmol and the coaching staff have gotten a lot of heat from the self-described “world’s greatest fans.”

“We didn’t make it easy,” Wainwright said. “The history there speaks to winning baseball games, and they’re not used to (this). … I don’t know if we’ve been 10 games back the entire time I’ve been here.”

Cubs fans know that feeling, but watching their rivals go through this was a feeling of schadenfreude they seemed to enjoy.

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