Tony Cruz, A.J. Pierzynski, and the future of Cardinals catching


It’s unlikely that Tony Cruz thought his fourth major-league season would include a trip to Double-A Springfield for anything but a rehab assignment, but the fully healthy Cardinals catcher found himself riding the bus anyway last week, optioned when Yadier Molina made an earlier-than-expected return from injury and the Redbirds found themselves with one backstop too many.

The move was merely a quick fix before September roster expansion meant Cruz could return to St. Louis a few days later, but it’s not like his performance this year made the decision even slightly difficult. Cruz’s third full season as a big-league backup has been his worst, both at the plate, where a .195/.267/.236 line speaks for itself, and behind it, where his stolen-base and passed-ball rates have climbed and his pitch-framing has abruptly gotten much worse.

Finally given a chance at extended playing time when Molina went down with a torn thumb ligament on July 9, Cruz wilted, going 5-for-34 in ten games before GM John Mozeliak signed A.J. Pierzynski to take over as the club’s primary catcher in Molina’s absence.

With Molina having returned and Pierzynski continuing to put up passable offensive numbers, Cruz doesn’t figure to play much of a role for the Cards down the stretch, let alone in a potential playoff run. What’s more, heading into his first year of arbitration eligibility on the heels of two abysmal offensive seasons, he’s by no means a lock to return to the Cardinals in 2015.

Aug 1, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher A.J. Pierzynski (35) looks on during the third inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium. The Brewers defeated the Cardinals 7-4. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Blessed with the best catcher in the game in Molina, the Cards don’t necessarily need to tear their hair out worrying about the 120 or so plate appearances left over every year for his backup. Still, with Cruz’s production trending well below league-average, the club’s lack of good catching options in the short- to medium-term is cause for at least some concern — even more so because, as the 2014 season has showed, those 120 PAs are increasingly liable to turn into 250 PAs. Yadier Molina isn’t getting any younger, and neither, crucially, are his knees.

Assuming a catcher doesn’t fall into Mozeliak’s hands via a trade, the choice he will face this offseason is this: sign a free agent, promote from within, or settle for another year of Cruz at a price of something like $1 million.

The free-agent catching market doesn’t look to offer anything close to a good fit. The Cards are unlikely to want to shell out several million dollars or more to fill what is still likely an auxiliary role, and cheap options are in short supply. Jeff Mathis’ defensive upside isn’t quite high enough to make up for his career .563 OPS, while John Buck’s poor defense doesn’t square with what the club has traditionally valued at the position. Gerald Laird backed up Molina throughout a championship-winning 2011 season, but will turn 35 in November and is coming off a down year with the Braves.

The 37-year-old Pierzynski has been a better acquisition for the club than many expected and will surely command a lower salary than the $8.25 million he earned from the Red Sox this year, but probably not one low enough for the Cardinals to consider bringing him back.

A natural successor to Cruz isn’t in evidence in the minor leagues, either. The organization’s only highly-rated catching prospect is 19-year-old Carson Kelly, who is years away from the majors and hit .248 at Low-A this season. Cody Stanley’s stock has risen after a strong season at Springfield, but it’s doubtful that the club will pin its hopes on a player who hasn’t yet reached Triple-A. Audry Perez and Ed Easley, who split time behind the plate in Memphis this year, simply aren’t major-league players.

And so, if for no other reason than the near-total lack of decent alternatives, it’s likely that Cruz will be back with the Cardinals next season on a one-year deal. It’s the least bad option, and as long as Molina stays healthy even another rough year for his backup won’t trouble the club too much.

Of course, all of this — Cruz, Kelly, Stanley, everything — is a prelude to a larger and much more unpleasant reality that the Cards and their fans will have to face in the coming years: Yadier Molina will not be the catcher forever, and he may not be a solid bet for 500+ PAs a season for very much longer. But let’s hope that particular bridge, over that particularly deep and frightening chasm, won’t have to be crossed for a while.