34-year-old Cardinal backstop to provide much needed relief for Yadier Molina, quality switch-hitting bat off the bench
We all knew these days were coming. Even as Yadier Molina was receiving that 85 mile-per-hour slider from rookie Adam Wainwright on the final pitch of the ’06 World Series. Eventually, we were going to have to face the music, we were going to have to deal with that fact that Yadi cannot catch for the Cardinals forever.
As much as I hate to say it, those days are coming, heck they are probably already here. Yadi watched Travis Ishikawa and the Giants walk off in the 2014 NLCS from the bench. Then he had to watch Chicago dog pile after their 2015 NLDS victory from that same vantage point.
In 2014, Yadi spent seven weeks on the DL through July and most of August with a ligament tear in his right thumb. Then he strained an oblique in Game 2 of the NLCS and was unable to play for the rest of the series.
Last year, he tore a thumb ligament, this time the left one, on September 20th while tagging out Anthony Rizzo on a play at the plate. He tried to play through the injury in the NLDS, but was unable to swing the bat and could barely receive the baseball behind the plate. Unable to perform, Yadi was forced to exit game three and was not seen again for the remainder of the series.
Immediately after the NLDS, Yadi had surgery on that left thumb. In December, it was determined that the first surgery didn’t get the job done, and Molina underwent a second surgery on December 16. As a result, Yadi is questionable for all of spring training as well as the Cardinals opener in Pittsburgh. It would be the first Opening Day start that Yadi has missed in 11 years.
Enter Brayan Pena. The 34-year-old Cuban-born catcher is entering his 12th season in the majors. He broke in with Atlanta, although he appeared in just 71 games over a four year stretch from 2005 through 2008.
Pena spent the next four years splitting time in Kansas City, a year in Detroit as a backup, and the past two seasons in Cincinnati as their starting catcher.
Pena is an upgrade over Yadi’s latest backup Tony Cruz largely because of the bat he swings. Pena is a .260 career hitter, and his ability to switch hit opens up intriguing possibilities in St. Louis.
For instance, in the scenario that neither Brandon Moss or Matt Adams are able to handle left-handed pitching in 2016, Pena could fill in at first base against left-handed starting pitchers. Once the starter is removed, Pena could move behind the dish to spell Yadi, and one of the lefties could come in at first base. This is a bit of a long shot scenario, but something Mike Matheny should consider for stretches that Pena may be swinging a hot stick.
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Pena has never hit for power, as he has just 26 career homeruns. He is going to put the ball in play, though. In 2015 Pena struck out just 34 times over 333 at-bats. Hena can hit a gap, too, as he turned in 17 doubles in Cincinnati last season.
Behind the dish, Pena committed just one error in 2015 to the tune of a .999 fielding percentage. He threw out 13 would-be base stealers, although he only caught runners at an 18% clip, which was 10% below the league average.
So what should we expect from Pena in 2016? The only thing the Cardinals have given us concerning Pena is that he was brought in to lighten the load on Molina.
I would expect Yadi to catch somewhere around 100 games in 2016 (assuming he stays healthy), and would be shocked if he went past 110. Priority number one in this situation has to be keeping Yadi healthy and fresh come playoff time. I could see him and Pena alternating games during those July/August grinders.
Offensively, any production the Cardinals get from Pena in 2016 is probably going to be better than what they have gotten from Tony Cruz in the past. That isn’t a shot at Tony, it is meant to illustrate the point that Pena is a solid hitter. Like I mentioned earlier, he is capable of playing first base, so it wouldn’t shock me to see him over there in occasionally against lefties.
Behind the plate, the Cardinals know that they are going to get a solid veteran with a decent arm and above average blocking skills. I believe that as the season goes on, the transition between Cardinal catchers is going to become seamless as far as how each man calls the game and how he handles the pitching staff.