How Will St. Louis Cardinals Solve Upcoming Catching Conundrum?

Apr 17, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Eric Fryer (59) looks on during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 17, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Eric Fryer (59) looks on during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Cardinals will soon have to make a decision on whether to keep catcher Eric Fryer, who’s currently hitting .476, on the major-league roster.

On any other major-league club where Aledmys Diaz hadn’t come out of nowhere to hit .331 with a .919 OPS through the season’s first two months, catcher Eric Fryer would unquestionably be the most pleasant surprise of 2016.

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Though he’s received limited opportunities, starting just four games behind the plate in place of Yadier Molina while getting mop-up duty in another 11, the St. Louis Cardinals’ number two backstop has been fantastic to start the season, posting a slash line of .476/.522/.571 through his first 23 plate appearances.

Because of his overwhelming success thus far, it’s easy to forget that Fryer only made the team in the first place due to a freak injury that projected backup Brayan Pena decided to have surgery on just one day before the start of the regular season. A piece of cartilage was displaced from Pena’s knee as he slipped in the dugout during spring training, and he had surgery that was expected to sideline him for anywhere between two weeks and a month.

Fast forward seven weeks, and Pena’s recovery seems to be taking longer than anticipated. According to a report from’s Jenifer Langosch on Wednesday, Pena is nearly ready to begin a rehab assignment:

"“Pena will squat and catch pitches on Thursday. He’ll do other catching drills as well, and will cap the day by running the bases for the first time.He’ll repeat these exercises over the next week and, if all goes well, is likely to begin his rehab assignment around the time the Cardinals return for their next homestand.”"

While that means Pena is still at least a week away from starting his rehab stint, it’s getting near time to address the elephant in the room: what are the Cardinals going to do with Fryer when Pena is ready to return?

Fryer, who’s spent parts of five different big-league seasons prior to this one with the Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates, is out of options, so he would need to be designated for assignment and pass through waivers to return to Triple-A. In addition, he’s already been outrighted to the minors three times during his career, so he’d be free to elect free agency and pursue a better opportunity even if he went through waivers unclaimed.

Thus, the Cardinals basically have three choices, in order of likelihood: 1) DFA Fryer and be content with losing him, knowing that they have prospects Mike Ohlman and Carson Kelly in the fold if there’s another catching injury, 2) keep both Fryer and Pena and figure out a way to make the 25-man roster work with three catchers, or 3) find a suitor for Pena, who signed a two-year, $5 million-dollar deal this offseason, and move forward with Fryer as the primary backup.

Seeing as Pena is widely considered to be both a great clubhouse leader and one of the best backup catchers in baseball, it seems impossible to think that the Cardinals would move Pena, especially to keep a 30-year-old catcher who has basically had two months of strong performance in the majors. That means that one of the first two options will be the likely course of action upon Pena’s return.

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The Cardinals could make a three-catcher roster alignment work; after all, they kept three catchers for a total of 25 days while the 25-man roster limit was in effect last season, as both Ed Easley and Cody Stanley saw action with the big-league club behind Molina and Tony Cruz. Unlike last year, though, Mike Matheny has utilized his bench players much more frequently through the early going. There’s no Peter Bourjos or Pete Kozma who’s going weeks between starts and being avoided like the plague when pinch-hitting opportunities arise.

If anything, that player is infielder Ruben Tejada, who’s received just eight starts and 40 plate appearances since returning from the DL on April 18. But he’ll likely be gone when Jhonny Peralta is activated off the disabled list next week. The remaining players on the bench are usually Jeremy Hazelbaker–the primary backup at all three outfield spots–and the two players who happen to be out on a given night from the second base platoon of Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko and the first base platoon of Matt Adams and Brandon Moss.

The Cardinals aren’t going to let any of those players walk in order to keep a third catcher, so it seems most likely that the Cardinals are just going to have to designate Fryer for assignment, hoping that he clears waivers and accepts an outright assignment. After all, the organization’s plan for him before the season was to have him around in the event that Molina had to open the season on the disabled list, but most likely to send him to Triple-A and have him split time with Ohlman.

While it would have been difficult to imagine Fryer, who came into the season as a .243 career major-league hitter, being a target for a waiver claim, it now seems very possible that he could be attractive to other teams. Nearly every team in the AL West–in particular, the Angels, Astros, Athletics, and Rangers–could really use some catching help, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see any of those teams express interest in claiming or trading for Fryer when he hits the waiver wire. Even if no team expresses overt interest while he’s going through the waiver process, it’s very possible that Fryer could choose to reject a minor-league assignment from the Cardinals and choose to pursue an opportunity where he has a better chance to get big-league playing time going forward.

Next: How Will Cardinals' Lineup Look Once Jhonny Peralta Returns?

For what it’s worth, one thing that the Cardinals could do to delay the inevitable would be to use the maximum 20 days that are allotted for Pena’s rehab assignment. Though he participated in the entirety of spring training, it might actually be a smart move considering that Pena hasn’t played in two months and isn’t in line for much major-league playing time, at least off the bat, upon his return. Obviously there’d also be the added benefit of putting off the decision while giving injured catchers such as Texas’s Robinson Chirinos and Oakland’s Josh Phegley time to return. Eventually, though, the Cardinals will have to deal with the issue that’s often referred to as the best problem to have in baseball: having more players than they know what to do with.