St. Louis Cardinals: Francisco Pena returns as backup catcher
By Matt Graves
In a move that fills one of the last needs that the St. Louis Cardinals have, the team has signed back Francisco Pena to play behind Yadier Molina.
After playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018, Francisco Pena will be coming back to the team on a minor league deal for at least 2019. This deal brings back another friendly presence in the clubhouse and is great for the Cardinals culture. On the field may be the slight issue.
Last year, Pena appeared in a career high 58 games, mostly due to the groin injury that kept Yadier Molina sidelined for a month. In his opportunities Pena was not exactly stellar with the bat hitting for just a .203 batting average and a .510 OPS. Pena had never gotten an opportunity to start for an extended amount of time as the 29-year-old played in just 28 combined games for the Royals and the Orioles before the 2018 season.
What this does mean is that there is possible room for improvement as Pena gets more time to mature at the plate. That is about as optimistic as I can get about this move.
Digging into Pena’s batted ball profile via Fangraphs, Pena just really struggles to hit line drives as his groundball percentage was 56% last year. With a not too shabby 29.3% hard contact rate he is hitting the ball hard (when he does hit it), it’s just not leaving the bat with the right angle. With more time in the league, Pena will hopefully be able to lower his 30.3% strikeout rating as well. Behind the plate Pena had just a 7% caught stealing percentage and a combined -5 DRS
Not great. In fact, only Magneuris Sierra had a worse wRC+ last year.
Fortunately for Pena, backing up someone of Yadier Molina’s caliber is among the best jobs in the world because he is not gonna have to play that often, while still making big league money.
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The one interesting aspect of the deal is that it is a minor league contract, not a major league one. This could mean a couple things for the St. Louis Cardinals. One, it could mean they want Pena to compete for a job. Last year, Pena didn’t have too much of a threat to his job from Carson Kelly or Andrew Knizner, but that may change now.
Earlier in the offseason, the Cardinals signed Joe Hudson to a minor league contract as well, Hudson debuted in 2018 and played in 12 games for the Angels. Neither of these candidates are really that attractive options, although the fans rightly love Francisco Pena’s personality. Other moves for players could also be done to add some competition for the backup job.
The second thing that this could mean is that the Cardinals are still looking at other options. While Pena is a cheaper option than a player like Stephen Vogt (who I wrote about here), Vogt’s production would be much better. I have no idea if the Cardinals are even interested in Vogt but I think he fits the team well.
Pena has not been added to the 40-man roster yet so a corresponding move doesn’t need to be made, but will have to be addressed at some point to get Pena on the major league team.
Overall this deal brings back a fan favorite player in a position that the Cardinals need to fill. As far as other positives, there aren’t many. Pena doesn’t hit or field well but could very well turn it around given more time.