St. Louis Cardinals Bring Back Eric Fryer, Sign Two Others to Minor-League Deals

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 brought back an old friend to serve as Yadier Molina‘s backup in 2017.

The St. Louis Cardinals announced some roster news on Monday that wasn’t exceptionally unexpected, signing catcher Eric Fryer to a minor-league contract. Fryer, who made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as a non-roster invitee last spring after Brayan Peña suffered a knee injury, hit .368/.415/.421 over 41 plate appearances before being designated for assignment out of necessity when Peña returned in June.

He was claimed on waivers by his former organization, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he hit .218/.300/.269 through 92 plate appearances over the remainder of the season. Fryer was non-tendered by the Pirates earlier this month and became a free agent. With the Cardinals having expressed a desire to bring in a veteran backup catcher rather than having prospect Carson Kelly sit behind Yadier Molina all season, rumors about a potential reunion with Fryer had circulated over the past week or so.

Assuming the Cardinals don’t sign another veteran catcher–which wouldn’t be the worst move in the world considering the way their lack of catching depth has exposed them over the past two seasons–Fryer will go into the 2017 season as the favorite to win the big-league backup job.

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While Fryer will come to spring training as a minor-league non-roster invitee, it won’t be difficult at all to add him to the 40-man roster. Lefty relievers Zach Duke and Tyler Lyons are both expected to begin the season on the 60-day disabled list, so that will immediately open up two spots. Righty reliever Miguel Socolovich is also out of options and will have to be removed from the 40-man if he doesn’t make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster, so that could create a third spot if the Cardinals find a few more unexpected candidates that they want to keep in the majors.

Perhaps the most intriguing news of the day was the Cardinals’ decision to sign pitcher/outfielder Jordan Schafer to a minor-league deal. Schafer, a 30-year-old lefty hitter and thrower, played in the majors as an outfielder from 2009-15 for the Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and Minnesota Twins, hitting .228/.308/.307 for his career.

After bottoming out and getting released by the Twins in 2015, though, Schafer converted to the mound last season after joining the Dodgers organization. He pitched primarily at Double-A Tulsa, posting a 3.15 ERA with a 1.45 WHIP, 46 strikeouts, and 17 walks in 40 innings. He also pitched six times at Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he was much less successful, posting a 9.95 ERA with a 2.37 WHIP and .455 opponent batting average. On the bright side, his K/BB ratio remained strong, as he struck out seven and walked none over 6 1/3 innings.

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With major-league rosters trending toward larger bullpens at the expense of extra bench spots for position players, Schafer could be an incredible asset for the Cardinals. It seems inevitable that desire for players like Schafer–in the vain of former Brewers reliever/pinch hitter Brooks Kieschnick–is only going to get stronger as the need for more arms increases, so he could represent the future. While his action in the outfield will likely be rather limited from this point going forward, having that skill in his back pocket will still be incredibly useful.

The Cardinals also signed 23-year-old minor-league catcher Gabriel Lino, formerly of the Philadelphia Phillies organization, to a minors deal with an invite to big-league spring training. Though Alberto Rosario and Carson Kelly will likely form the catching tandem at Triple-A Memphis to begin the season, Lino–who has 53 games of experience at Triple-A–could be an option at that level if another backstop is needed. Unsurprisingly, Lino fits the usual profile of a Cardinals minor-league catcher, as he’s a glove-first backstop that has posted a .230/.303/.341 slash line over the course of his career.

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The Cards also announced the signings of former big-leaguer Daniel Schlereth–who was a very effective member of the Tigers’ bullpen in 2010 and ’11, but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012 and hasn’t really been effective at any level since then–and minor-league infielder Dickie Joe Thon, who could become part of the list of all-time great Cardinal names if he ever manages to crack the big-league roster. Both of those players will attend minor-league spring training, but the Cardinals tend to use players from minor-league camp extensively in big-league spring games, so it’s likely that they’ll see action with the major-league club at some point next spring.