St. Louis Cardinals Sign Catcher Brayan Pena to Two-Year Deal


The Cardinals made their first major free agent addition on Monday, giving themselves some better protection behind Yadier Molina.

The St. Louis Cardinals made their first significant free agent signing of the 2015-16 offseason on Monday, inking veteran backup catcher Brayan Pena to a two-year contract. The 33-year-old Pena is an 11-year major-league veteran and has played for the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, and Cincinnati Reds throughout the course of his career.

The Cuban-born backstop spent his past two seasons with the Reds, where he received his most extensive opportunity yet, in part because he added first base to his positional repertoire. Pena played 53 games at first in 2014 and another five in 2015. He caught in 46 games in 2014, but shouldered much of the load behind the plate last season for the Reds, playing 86 games, as starter Devin Mesoraco was knocked out early on with a hip injury.

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Pena is not much of a power hitter (23 homers in 1,936 career plate appearances), which hurts his OPS, but he’s made consistent contact at the plate throughout his career. Pena has played in at least 60 games per season in every year since 2009, and during that span, he has hit no worse than .236 in a season. He hit for a .263 average during his time with Cincinnati, and he’s a career .260 hitter. It’s worth noting, also, that Pena has become more disciplined at the plate as the years have gone by. In 2015, he had a career-high .334 on-base percentage, which ranked him seventh among NL catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.

Though he obviously won’t be equal to Molina behind the plate, Pena is well-regarded as a receiver and has drawn praise for his ability to handle a staff. Pena, a native of Cuba, is particularly respected for his communication skills with young Latin-American pitchers, which is a large part of the reason that the Reds felt comfortable placing Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias into their rotation so quickly during the 2015 season.

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The deal with Pena likely means that the Cardinals will end up non-tendering Tony Cruz, who has served as Molina’s primary backup in every season since 2012 but has been pressed into starting duty at various points in each of the past two seasons. Cruz, who possesses a career .220 batting average and .572 OPS while playing nondescript defense, just wasn’t skilled enough to be counted on as a regular, especially considering that the Cardinals had been forced to start him at points during the past two postseasons

The 29-year-old Cruz is out of minor-league options, so it wouldn’t make much sense to bring him to spring training when it’s quite clear that he’s not going to crack the 25-man major-league roster. If either Molina or Pena should sustain an injury during the season, the Cards could call on Eric Fryer, a veteran of five big-league seasons who was signed to a minor-league deal earlier this month, or Mike Ohlman, who had a strong season at Double-A Springfield and figures to receive a promotion to Triple-A Memphis in 2016.

Whether the Cardinals are ready to admit it or not, the signing of Pena likely means that they’re ready to limit the workload a bit for Molina, who has played in at least 136 games in six of the past seven seasons. Pena played in 115 games in 2014 and 108 this past season, so it wouldn’t make much sense for the Cardinals to sign him just to play the 50-ish games that Cruz has seen action in during his time as Molina’s backup. While it might hurt Molina’s pride to have to spend more time on the bench, it will likely be in the best interest of the team. Molina’s injuries over the past two seasons–two torn thumb ligaments and a strained oblique–have largely been circumstantial, but it can’t hurt to give the 33-year-old more rest, especially since he’s been less durable recently.

Next: Cardinals Add Aledmys Diaz, Dean Kiekhefer, Charlie Tilson to 40-Man Roster

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