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Talks with All-Star Willson Contreras merge Cardinals’ need for catcher, wish for offense

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APTOPIX Brewers Cubs Baseball

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras celebrates after hitting the game-winning single as Brewers relief pitcher Peter Strzelecki watches during the 11th inning in Chicago on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

SAN DIEGO — It was a brief explanation, spoken softly about a big stick, offered by Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol as he fielded a question on how to change the look of the offense and he mentioned a new addition at catcher could be that answer.

“Part of it is what we’re doing during these meetings,” he said. “You’re finding a catcher who you can insert into the middle of the lineup.”

For a position long defined by the mitt, the Cardinals are open to add a bat.

While continuing to hold discussions about trades for a catcher, the Cardinals have continued to explore a potential contract offer for free-agent Willson Contreras, a three-time All-Star with the Cubs and the premiere offensive player available at the position. In the first two days of this week’s winter meetings, the Cardinals have met at least twice with Contreras’ representatives, and according to sources they are one of three teams discussing a multi-year offer for him. They are aware of what Contreras seeks, and no formal offer had been made as of Tuesday night while the Cardinals continued to explore a trade for Oakland’s Sean Murphy.

Marmol and John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, met last week with Contreras and one of his agents in Orlando, Florida, to gauge, in person, a potential fit.

“It was a good visit; it really was,” Marmol said. “When you set aside everything from a competitive standpoint, seeing him across the way (at Wrigley Field), just having conversations with him, learning what kind of drives him, what motivates him, and what he’s looking for moving forward, it’s telling. … This is a guy who loves to win, who wakes up thinking about it, goes to sleep thinking about it. And we’ve seen that quite a bit across the way. We respect his game.”

The Cardinals remained optimistic Tuesday that they could leave San Diego with a catcher by the end of the meetings Wednesday, though the market seemed stuck until the Athletics chose the right deal for Murphy or a team jumped ahead to meet Contreras’ offer.

The Astros, those defending World Series champs, and Cardinals are two of the three teams discussing contract details with Contreras’ representatives, a source said. The Cardinals had discussed a contract framework of less than five years, so far, a source described. The Astros had a deal in place with the Cubs for Contreras at the trade deadline before it was nixed. There are multiple teams talking to the A’s about Gold Glove-winner Murphy, and the Cardinals have been described by sources as “aggressive” though teams like the Tampa Bay Rays are compelling rivals for the deal. Murphy, who has three years of control before free agency, has been a leading target for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals have also discussed a trade with Toronto for catcher Danny Jansen while maintaining dialogue with the rep for free-agent Christian Vazquez. One source with knowledge of the Cardinals’ pursuits suggested they had gained the most progress with Contreras.

The Cardinals acknowledged what direction they go for a catcher will influence the other moves they can make, the payroll space they have left for other pursuits.

And, yes, how it could reshape their lineup by rethinking their emphasis at catcher.

“I think we’re open-minded to that change,” Mozeliak said Tuesday in the team’s suite at the host hotel. “We’re not wedded to saying it’s got to just be defense-first. We’re not. That doesn’t mean we’re going to end up having to be more offensive-minded. We’re certainly looking at exploring all of those types of options. We do see this as an opportunity to help our offense.”

Of the available catchers, Contreras has the strongest track record at the plate — hitting well above average for the position and above average at designated hitter. The 30-year-old Venezuelan hit .243 with a .466 slugging percentage, 22 homers, and an .815 OPS this past season. In seven years with the Cubs, he has four seasons with at least 20 homers. He has expressed an interest in taking on the challenge of being the catcher who replaces Cardinals great Yadier Molina, and during the season he contacted friend and former teammate Jose Quintana to quiz him on the Cardinals clubhouse and how he might fit.

He sought the chance to give the Cardinals a personal look at the leadership qualities he feels he’ll bring to the role.

“I think when you meet with players you’re just trying to get to know them, trying to understand their expectations for themselves and for the team, and you’re also trying to understand the team’s expectations in those meetings,” Mozeliak said. “If you approach it with those three goals in mind, you do come out of it with some better understanding of what both parties are looking for.”

Mozeliak declined to confirm he attended the meeting in Orlando.

Held to three runs in the wild-card round of the playoffs — all three runs provided by rookies coming off the bench — the Cardinals entered the offseason looking for a way to “protect” the MVP-caliber hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, in the lineup. They spoke of their needed additions in separate terms: a catcher, a bat, and an arm. The possibility to fuse two of them into one addition made Contreras appealing, even as they debated the defensive downtick. Murphy, Vazquez, and Jansen have received superior reviews defensively. Of the group, Contreras is the certain middle order hitter. Others may only have that potential.

“If you can address multiple needs with one vs. two, sure,” Mozeliak said.

“We had a very, very good catcher for a long time and one of the most-respected competitors in our game, right?” Marmol said of Molina. “It’s not just finding the best defender or the best bat out there that can catch. It’s the overall package of someone who’s going to fit our culture and add to it. There’s a difference between guys who just like being big-leaguers and guys who love winning. We want to make sure we get it right. Get the guy who loves winning, who wakes up thinking about winning, who goes to sleep thinking about winning.”

Marmol would later use those same phrases to describe Contreras.

The Cardinals have the payroll space and the spending willingness to pursue the highest-cost free agent on the catcher market. Contreras received a qualifying offer from the Cubs so signing him will cost the Cardinals their second-highest pick in the 2023 draft and $500,000 from their international spending limit. 

That move will influence what else they attempt to do in the winter. Exploring a reunion with Quintana remained a possibility until the lefty agreed to a two-year deal with the New York Mets early Wednesday morning, according to The Athletic and other reports.

The Cardinals have not excused themselves from some free-agent shortstop conversations.

On Tuesday, they made their first signing of the meetings by agreeing to terms on a one-year, major-league deal with right-hander Guillermo Zuniga. The 24-year-old spent the past season in the Dodgers’ organization at Class AA and has the appeal of 66 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings and a career strikeout rate of 10.3-per-nine in the minors. His addition gives the Cardinals 38 players on the 40-man roster.

One of those spots will go to a catcher.

That catcher will shape so much of what comes next.

“We’ve got to get to a point where we can make a decision,” Mozeliak said. “We kind of know what’s at stake. We understand what these costs entail, whether it’s cash or the player side. We’re trying to weigh all that in.”

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