Cubs react to Willson Contreras being relieved of catching duties by Cardinals

“There are some guys who have been there a really long time working with Yadi [Molina],” manager David Ross said. “Going about things differently sometimes doesn’t go smoothly.”

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Former Cub Willson Contreras has been relieved of his catching duties in St. Louis.

Former Cub Willson Contreras has been relieved of his catching duties in St. Louis.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

How unsold were the Cubs on Willson Contreras’ defense as a catcher?

So much so, they relegated any notion of extending his contract to the pay-no-mind list during his last couple of years heading into free agency.

And yet the Cubs still sent Contreras out to catch in 72 of his 113 games played in 2022. And that came after a 2021 season when Contreras caught in 116 games, right behind the Dodgers’ Will Smith (117), the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto (118) and the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina (118) for the most in the National League.

Things got awkward between the Cubs and Contreras toward the end of his 14-year run in the organization, there’s no doubt. But what’s happening now between the three-time All-Star and his new team, the rival Cardinals — who signed him for five years and $87.5 million to succeed the great Yadier Molina — is a whole new level of cringe.

In a nutshell: After squatting behind home plate in all of 24 games for the Cardinals, Contreras has been unceremoniously relieved of his catching duties. For the foreseeable future, he’ll be a designated hitter and occasional outfielder.

If he’s hurt, embarrassed or ticked off by this development — and how could he not be? — he’ll just have to play through it beginning with his return to Wrigley Field for a series against the Cubs that starts Monday. The questions about his catching will follow him wherever he goes for a while, but especially in the World Series stomping grounds where he came of age as a big-leaguer.

“I’m sure it’s a hard thing to hear and a hard thing to swallow,” said first-year Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart, a two-time Gold Glove winner. “It’s surprising for sure. It feels like it’s really early in the year, early in his tenure in St. Louis for them to make that decision.”

Barnhart called Contreras’ physical tools “off the charts,” called him a “damn good player” and added, “I respect the hell out of him.”

But the Cardinals — division favorites to start the season — were an NL-worst 10-24 entering Sunday, while pitchers had a 5.04 ERA throwing to Contreras, and team president John Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol didn’t leave much doubt how they felt about that. They grabbed their star catcher’s gear, patted him on the head and told him, “That’ll be enough for now.”

Other Cubs were less inclined to discuss Contreras’ plight. Longtime teammate Ian Happ said it was “yet to be seen” what role Contreras will have long-term and speculated that it could involve a return to catching. Young catcher Miguel Amaya, a Contreras fan, clearly was uncomfortable with the subject.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Amaya said before going on to praise Contreras for looking out for him during previous springs.

Manager David Ross, a former catcher who didn’t always agree with Contreras’ methods in the position, pointed to the difficulty of replacing Molina, who held things down at a Hall of Fame level over nearly two decades.

“You’re not going to replace that person,” Ross said. “You’re going to have to find your own way. There are some guys who have been there a really long time working with Yadi. Going about things differently sometimes doesn’t go smoothly. … Change takes an adjustment period.”

Contreras barely made it five weeks into the season before losing his gig. That’s quite the adjustment he’ll have to make now. Tough business.

THREE-DOT DASH

The Cubs almost went in hot against the Cardinals, but no. Another one-run loss, this one by a 5-4 score in 14 innings against the Marlins, ended the weekend with a thud. No series sweep. No winning streak. No separation from .500.

These guys just aren’t going to make it easy, are they? …

Look on the bright side, Cubs fans: The team is 2-8 in one-run games, and do you know who else had a losing record in such situations? Try the 2016 Cubs, who were 22-23 in one-run games and a slightly better 81-35 in all others. There was almost no such thing as beating that ’16 squad easily. …

Congrats to Bears quarterback Justin Fields, who graduated from college on Sunday. He’s officially too learned not to realize the all-caps “THE” before “Ohio State University” is both meaningless and annoying. …

At 10-to-1, Duke is the extra-early favorite to win next year’s NCAA Tournament, according to BetOnline. Kansas — riding the high of a big transfer by Michigan center Hunter Dickinson — is next at 11-1, followed by Michigan State and defending champion UConn at 14-1.

We’d tell you where Illinois and Northwestern are, but you don’t want to know. …

Two University of Southern California student journalists who covered the NFL draft in Kansas City were arrested while en route home in the theft of more than $1,000 worth of team jerseys with the No. 1 on them. First, where are their morals? Second, at least they’re not any worse at stealing No. 1s than the Carolina Panthers.

THIS YOU GOTTA SEE

NHL draft lottery (7 p.m. Monday, ESPN): Odds the Blackhawks will land the No. 1 pick, sure to be Connor Bedard, are 11.5%. That’s not to be confused with the odds the Hawks will be watchable next season, which also are 11.5%.

Warriors at Lakers, Game 4 (9 p.m. Monday, TNT): The Warriors got “punked,” as Klay Thompson put it, in a 30-point loss in Game 3. There probably is more current slang he could’ve used, but neither of these teams is young enough to know it.

Astros at White Sox (7:10 p.m. Friday, NBCSCH): Struggling Jose Abreu has yet to make inroads with fans in Houston, but all he has to do in his South Side homecoming is step on the field and let the folks in the stands handle the rest.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Two Phil’s: It’s bad enough the Illinois thoroughbred lost the Kentucky Derby by one measly length. Did its owners really have to erroneously place an apostrophe in its name, too?

Mike Budenholzer: The Bucks fired him even though they had the NBA’s best winning percentage on his watch and, oh, yeah, won their first title in 50 years. Seems about right.

Brad Bohannon: The University of Alabama fired the baseball coach amid a gambling scandal, which was far more humane than the alternative punishment — feeding him to Nick Saban.

Sox fans: How sick are they of players missing games due to maladies large and small? Sick enough that some of them are ripping on Eloy Jimenez for needing an appendectomy. Maybe take a deep breath, people.

The Pirates: A seven-game losing streak has kind of gummed up the whole baseball’s-adorable-upstarts thing, but there’s always next century.

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