St. Louis Cardinals: The backup catcher conundrum

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 16: Francisco Pena #46 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates scoring a run against the Minnesota Twins during the second inning of the interleague game on May 16, 2018 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Cardinals defeated the Twins 7-5. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 16: Francisco Pena #46 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates scoring a run against the Minnesota Twins during the second inning of the interleague game on May 16, 2018 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Cardinals defeated the Twins 7-5. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

With the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training underway, the backup catcher role is still seemingly up for grabs. Who is competing and who is gonna win?

That cool spring breeze coupled with the bright blue skies doesn’t just signal the beginning of spring, it gives St. Louis Cardinals fans, such as myself, the satisfaction of watching baseball again. This dreary offseason featured a drawn out, anticlimactic contract negotiation game in which highly coveted free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado stalled for months to sign with a team.

With the winter offseason in the rearview mirror, however, the realization that the season is just a month or so away is enough to give even a casual MLB fan a sense of excitement and anticipation to watch their favorite team compete for a chance to play in postseason October baseball. But it all starts somewhere. It all starts in spring training.

Spring training is a time of ballpark shenanigans, exciting, long-awaited team debuts for new signings, and a chance for breakout minor leaguers to show off their talents in an exhibition setting in front of coaches and staff. With the first two weeks of spring training underway, St. Louis has already witnessed new acquisitions, Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller take the field in those classic birds on the bat uniforms.

Joining them has been several AAA Memphis Redbirds prospects such as Genesis Cabrera, Lane Thomas, and Ryan Helsey that have dazzled in their opportunities this spring. But, spring training isn’t all about the guys with clear cut roles on the team.

The Cardinals do have an intriguing decision on their hands in the form of the backup catcher position behind 6-time gold glover and fan favorite, Yadier Molina. Being a backup to Molina is no guarantee of substantial playing time as noted by his very high usage rate. In fact according to Baseball Reference, as of the end of the 2018 MLB season, Yadier Molina ranks 12th in Defensive Games Played at the catcher position.

Even though Yadi is entering his year 36 season, he has given the Cardinals every reason to start him every game he is able. Just last year, Molina smacked 20 HR while batting a respectable .260 BAA while missing significant time with a groin injury.

As durable as Molina has been, we all understand he needs a backup and as illustrated by last year when he missed time with an injury, we need a backup that can contribute both on the offense and defense side of the field.

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Andrew Knizner is slated to start and play every day in AAA for the Memphis Redbirds while highly ranked MLB catcher prospect Carson Kelly was shipped out in the Paul Goldschmidt trade. that leaves the two frontrunners for the opening day backup catcher as last year’s backup catcher Francisco Pena and new signing/longtime Baltimore Oriole Matt Wieters.

Both Pena and Wieters signed a one-year minor league contract with a non-roster invite meaning they will both be competing for a spot on the opening day roster. Pena, last year’s backup option, was brought into the club last season as a backup to Molina on a one year contract. Pena received a significant opportunity last season when Molina was sidelined for a month due to a 102 mph fastball from Jordan Hicks that hit him in the groin.

During last year’s campaign, Pena posted a -1.0 WAR and batted .203 with a .271 slugging percentage. Simply put, Pena has had a legitimate shot at catching at the major league level when Molina was dealing with his injury, but he hasn’t shown the Cardinals why they should bring him back for another year.

Pena’s hopes of returning to the Cardinal’s roster this year as a backup took a significant hit recently as he suffered an oblique injury during a spring training game against the Phillies earlier this week. The prognosis indicates that he’ll be out 10-15 days but you have to wonder how much of an opportunity he has to really prove himself as a candidate for a spot on the 25 man roster. With this news, the backup catcher position seems to have fallen in Wieters’s lap for the time being.

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If Wieters does end up securing a spot on the Opening Day roster, it’s expected that Pena will choose to opt out of his contract and re-enter free agency searching for a role elsewhere.

The switch-hitting Matt Wieters, however, has two gold gloves and four all-star appearances to his name while hitting .251 and putting up a career WAR of 18.0. Although he has had a solid career with the Baltimore Orioles through the 2009-2016 seasons, his tenure with the Nationals was a bit of a drop off from his career numbers.

There is reason to believe Wieters could bounce back and have a decent year when given starts behind Yadier Molina. He could actually be given the opening day start as Molina is continuing to deal with a nagging knee injury although many around Cardinals baseball expect Molina to be completely ready come opening day.

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Wieters can offer the Cardinals a significant upgrade in the backup catcher role from Pena because of his previous major league experience and impressive batting statistics in both Baltimore and Washington. He should prove a solid addition by adding much-needed pop from the bench and a steady force behind the plate should his name be called on during the season in replacement of Yadier Molina.