Should the St. Louis Cardinals Fill a Need and Reunite with Tony Cruz?

Oct 8, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Tony Cruz (48) talks with catcher Yadier Molina (4) during NLDS workout day prior to game one of the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Tony Cruz (48) talks with catcher Yadier Molina (4) during NLDS workout day prior to game one of the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

With Monday’s decision to DFA Brayan Peña, the St. Louis Cardinals are in need of catching depth. Should they bring back old friend Tony Cruz on a minor-league deal?

The St. Louis Cardinals made a rather surprising move on Monday, designating catcher Brayan Peña for assignment just short of a year after signing him to a two-year, $5 million-dollar contract. Though he faced plenty of competition for the honor, Peña was arguably the most disappointing Cardinal of 2016, getting just 14 plate appearances and catching 19 innings while spending most of the season on the disabled list with a nagging knee injury.

It’s theoretically possible that the Cardinals could bring Peña back under a more team-friendly arrangement, with him accepting a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training and battling for the backup catcher job. With that said, the prospects for Peña becoming a reliable defensive catcher once again didn’t look too good at the end of 2016. He didn’t catch at all during the month of September after being activated from the disabled list, as he complained of continued pain in his knee. When he caught for a stretch in late June and early July, he struggled significantly.

For what it’s worth, after being designated for assignment, Peña tweeted: “Thank you to the Cardinals, such a great organization, I apologized to the front office, fans & teammates that I couldn’t do more.” Those don’t exactly sound like words from a guy who expects to be back with the organization in 2017.

More from Arch Authority

With the ouster of Peña, the only other catcher on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster besides Yadier Molina–who is as firmly entrenched in the starting role as one can be heading into 2017–is 22-year-old Carson Kelly, who came up in September and started two games, hitting .154/.214/.231 over 14 plate appearances.

Kelly definitely has a shot to be Molina’s backup at the outset of next season; the Cardinals consider him to have a bright major-league future, and he’s the team’s number 11 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. The organization has often shown a preference for defensively-minded backup catchers, and Kelly–a former minor-league Gold Glove winner–is about as strong in that facet of the game as a player his age can possibly be.

On the other hand, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold wrote Monday that “the Cardinals believe leading prospect Kelly can benefit from starting at Class AAA, not sitting in the majors.” That makes sense considering that Kelly was rushed to the big leagues somewhat, spending just half a season each at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016 before making his major-league debut on September 5. Though it was a small sample size, his performance at the plate backed up that assertion, and it might make sense for him to get at least a few more months of regular at-bats before he gets parked behind Molina on the bench for days or (more realistically) weeks at a time as Molina seizes every opportunity that manager Mike Matheny gives him to play.

More from St. Louis Cardinals

If the Cardinals decide to send Kelly back to the minors to begin 2017, the only obvious in-house candidate right now to serve as Molina’s backup is Alberto Rosario, who was the big-league backup for most of the second half of the 2016 season before yielding to Kelly in September. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster following the regular season, but has been re-signed to a minor-league contract and will attend big-league spring training.

Rosario, though, is a soon-to-be 30-year-old who spent all of his career in the minor leagues before being summoned to the big leagues under dire circumstances in July. He posted a career .184/.225/.237 slash line in 41 plate appearances that very closely went along with the .239/.290/.308 one he posted over 2,335 career minor-league PAs. It’d be an absolute shock if he were able to develop into a major-league hitter.

Rosario is solid defensively and is a good voice of reason for young pitchers. But the Cardinals can’t completely give up any hope of offense from the catcher position on days where Molina sits, like they did during the second half of 2016. If Kelly isn’t going to be the backup, they at least need to make an effort to find someone who has a fighting chance at the plate.

Tony Cruz Kansas City Royals
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports /

Perhaps the best player to fill that need is one who the Cardinals already know very well. Catcher Tony Cruz, who came up with the Cardinals in 2011 and was Molina’s primary backup from 2012-15, was designated for assignment by the Kansas City Royals last Friday. The Royals could ask Cruz to accept an outright assignment to the minors, but with more than three years of big-league service time, he has the right to (and is expected to) reject the outright assignment and become a free agent.

The Cardinals traded the 30-year-old Cruz to Kansas City after they signed Peña last winter. He battled with the Royals’ incumbent backup, Drew Butera, to be Salvador Perez‘s understudy in 2016, but since Cruz had a minor-league option remaining and Butera did not, Cruz was sent to Triple-A.

Butera went on to have a fantastic season, posting a career-high .808 OPS, and earned himself a new two-year contract last week. Meanwhile, except for a brief spell in early June and a stint in September, Cruz spent most of the year at Triple-A Omaha, hitting .264/.347/.387 with seven homers in 363 plate appearances. He failed to reach base in five major-league PAs.

That’s not to say that Cruz can’t hold his own at the major-league level, though. In 633 PAs with the Cardinals over five seasons, Cruz was solid (at least by major-league backup catcher standards), hitting .220/.262/.310 with five homers and 58 RBI. At least publicly, Cardinals pitchers expressed confidence in his skills behind the plate, and while he obviously was a downgrade from Molina, he didn’t cost the Cardinals games as a backstop.

If anything, Cruz has just been exposed at times when he’s been unexpectedly cast into starting duty. When pushed into the starter’s role as Molina went on the DL in 2013, Cruz crumbled a bit. For the season, he had just a .519 OPS as a starter, compared to a .583 OPS coming off the bench.

He was better when similarly pressed into duty in 2014, but in that case, the Cardinals intelligently chose to sign veteran A.J. Pierzynski, who split time with Cruz as Molina recovered. For what it’s worth, Cruz hit a clutch home run off of Madison Bumgarner in the fourth inning of Game 5 in the NLDS that year–the game that the Cardinals would later lose on Travis Ishikawa‘s infamous walk-off homer.

After being removed from the Royals’ 40-man roster, Cruz almost certainly won’t find a 40-man spot on another team before spring training. He’ll have to accept a “prove it” minor-league deal and go into a camp with the mindset to win a job but a willingness to go to Triple-A if needed. The Cardinals aren’t in a position to give up spots on the 40-man right now, as they’ve already had to make some tough cuts.

Must Read: Cardinals Should Go After Sean Rodriguez

Thus, Cruz could be a perfect fit. The Cardinals need more catching depth–not only for the purpose of of making the big-league team more competitive, but to field a Triple-A team–as Rosario is the only catcher in the organization besides Molina or Kelly who can be trusted to provide spot duty in the majors or to play regularly in Memphis. If Cruz (or a catcher with comparable MLB experience) were to be signed, the Cardinals would go into the spring with some respectable catching depth. (On an aside, with the way that major-league teams run through catchers these days–and the fact that big-league teams may be permitted to carry a 26th player in 2017–it might even make sense for the Cards to sign a former big-leaguer to start in Double-A if the opportunity arises.)

Next: Cardinals Fan Base Nominated for Fandom 250

Cruz isn’t going to be a colossal upgrade over Rosario. There’s a reason that he spent nearly all of the 2016 season in Triple-A, and there’s a reason (albeit, perhaps, a complex one) why the Royals outrighted him off their 40-man roster last week. But the Cardinals need catching depth in the worst way, and it won’t be hard to find a third-stringer or potential backup that’s better than Rosario. If there’s a guy like Cruz on the market who knows the pitching staff, can hit a little bit, and can be had on a minor-league deal, there’s no reason that the Cardinals shouldn’t at least pursue him.