The St. Louis Cardinals announced the signing of catcher Brayan Pena to a two-year contract, first reported on the Cardinals' flagship radio station KMOX. Pena is likely to be the backup to catcher Yadier Molina. He will receive $5 million over the next two years, per Derrick Goold. At 33 years old and turning 34 in January, Pena has played for the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers before serving as the Cincinnati Reds backup and then primary catcher over the last two seasons when Devin Mesoraco went down with an injury. Signing Pena likely spells the end of Tony Cruz as the Cardinals backup catcher for the Cardinals.
Pena has earned his keep as a backup catcher since entering the league back in 2005. He never started more than 60 games in a season during his ten years in the league before last season. He has received more playing time the last two years than at any other point in his career. In 2014, he was forced into playing first base for a number of games due to Joey Votto's injury. Last year, when Devin Mesoraco was hurt for the Reds, Pena became the team's primary catcher. Next season, Pena will resume his traditional role as a backup behind Yadier Molina.
Over the last two years, in over 700 plate appearances, Pena has hit .264/.313/.341 with five home runs and a wRC+ of 80 on the Reds. He has been roughly a replacement player over his career due to his below average bat from the catching position. He does not have a lot of power in his bat, having hit just five home runs over the last two seasons. Pena is a switch hitter and in 686 plate appearances over the last three seasons against right-handed pitchers, Pena's line is .291/.331/.387 with a .309 BABIP and a 97 wRC+. If he is utilized appropriately, he could provide some positive value relative to league-average catchers (86 wRC+).
Pena should be serviceable defensively, although he does not throw out a ton of runners. Tony Cruz has been the backup to Yadier Molina over the past few years, although the Cardinals have not made any secret of trying to upgrade the position. In 2014, when Yadier Molina went out with an injury, Cruz lasted very little time in the starting role before the team added A.J. Pierzynski to serve as catcher in Molina's absence.
The Cardinals did not find anyone on the free agent market last season who was willing to take the reduced role of being Yadier Molina's backup, according to Derrick Goold. As a result, the team went with Tony Cruz again as the Cardinals primary backup to Yadier Molina. Mike Matheny and the rest of the Cardinals spoke well of Cruz's ability, but the proof is in the playing time. Molina was on pace to play more at 33 years of age than at any time in his career, and likely would have if not for another injury. Cruz was again given playing time at the end of the season, and then played Molina in the playoffs despite the latter's injured thumb that made it difficult to catch and impossible to hit.
Cruz was eligible for salary arbitration next season and likely would have received about $1 million if he had been tendered a contract by the Cardinals. The deadline to tender arbitration-eligible players a contract is Wednesday, and with Pena in the fold, Cruz is not likely to be tendered a contract, making him a free agent.
Giving $5 million guaranteed to a player of Pena's character might seem like a high price to pay, but the organization decided it did not want to move forward with Tony Cruz, and needed to make a decision on another catcher by Wednesday. Pena is not likely to have a major role on the Cardinals' over the next two seasons, but does provide a player with more experience should Molina need extended time off. The Cardinals were willing to give Pena two years to get him to forego other options in free agency as well as giving the Cardinals the piece of mind of having the relatively minor task of backup catcher out of the way so they can move forward with bigger pieces.