SAN DIEGO — A Cardinals franchise confident earlier in the week that it would ultimately leave MLB’s Winter Meetings with the catcher it desperately needs and covets — top target, Willson Contreras — saw those negotiations hit a snag on Tuesday and left it wondering about the identity of its catcher for 2023 and beyond.
As is often the case in high-stakes free-agency negotiations, Contreras’ chances of doing a Cardinals uniform next season will likely come down to dollars and to the extent the Redbirds are willing to go in terms of the length of his next contract. Also, there’s this: Which entity will blink first on caving to the other’s demands — the catching-starved Cardinals or the most accomplished backstop on the free-agent market?
According to a source who requested anonymity, the Cardinals’ hopes of landing Contreras severely slowed Tuesday when St. Louis refused to budget on a deal longer than three years for the 30-year-old catcher. While the Cardinals were willing to meet the financial demands of the career .256 career hitter — approximately $17 million per season — the exclusion of a fourth year and possibly an option for a fifth proved to be a deal-breaker. Now, the Cardinals wait on a change of heart from Contreras, upping the length of their offer or possibly pursuing other options. Oakland’s Sean Murphy or Toronto’s Alejandro Kirk could come via a trade that will cost them only prospects.
“We have balls in the air and we’re trying to determine the best way to deploy the resource,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said on Tuesday while declining to discuss negotiations with specific players. “Today was really spent trying to get more granular and understand what things look like. Are we hopeful we can do something before we leave? We are hopeful, but yesterday I was a little more confident than I am at the moment. But there’s still time.”
Contreras, a long-time Cubs rival who is seeking a long-term contract and a shot to be on another World Series winner, met with Cardinals leaders recently in Orlando, Fla., the catcher’s offseason home. Conveniently enough, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol spent many of his formative years and went to high school in Orlando, so they had plenty to discuss. Marmol came away impressed with the drive of the fiery free agent.
“It was a good visit, it really was,” Marmol said. “When you set aside everything from a competitive standpoint and you’re just having a conversation, and you’re learning what motivates and drives him and what he’s looking for, it’s telling.
“Willson is a very good competitor. We talked about loving winning, and this is a guy who loves to win. It’s a guy you don’t want to compete against because you know he’s good. He’s a great competitor, and you respect his game.”
Marmol led the Cardinals to 93 wins and an NL Central crown in his first season as skipper, but in his eyes the season was somewhat of a disappointment because of how the veteran-laden team collapsed in the playoffs. The franchise failed to deliver on its stated goal — a 12th World Series title — largely because the Cardinals’ bats inexplicably went silent in a two-game loss to the Phillies in the Wild Card Series. The sixth-seeded Phillies went on to also beat the Braves and Padres and reach the World Series, but that did nothing to soothe Marmol’s feelings of failure.
“The way [the question was asked] would infer I’m over it by now, but I don’t think you ever get over it,” Marmol said candidly. “It’s good not to get over it and learn from it. Do you learn from it and put it aside? Absolutely, but it’s something that hopefully eats at all of us a little bit. That’s what winners do; they hate losing.”
Marmol shared his feelings of bitterness with outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson, players who were heavily counted upon but struggled through injuries and sputtering production. Marmol wants those struggles to drive those outfielders and lead to stellar bounce-back rebuttals. Get more from those high-ceiling players — and add a catcher such as Murphy, Kirk or the proven Contreras — and the Cardinals won’t have to be so reliant on NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and star Nolan Arenado.
“You address [the 2022] shortcomings in a couple of ways, and part of that is finding a catcher you can insert into the middle of the lineup,” Marmol said. “But you are also counting on a production from certain guys. Tyler O’Neill is going to have to produce more than he produced this year. He’s going about it in a way that’s going to give him the best shot. Other guys are taking this offseason very seriously.
“At the end of the day, put very plainly, they are going to have to produce at a higher rate.”
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