Pena excited to back up 'role model' Molina
Veteran catcher signs two-year deal; Cards to trade or non-tender Cruz
ST. LOUIS -- For the first time since 2011, Yadier Molina is slated to be backed up by someone other than Tony Cruz.
Seeking to bolster their catching depth and position Molina for more days off moving forward, the Cardinals announced on Monday that they had signed free-agent catcher Brayan Pena to a two-year deal. The agreement was reached before Thanksgiving and makes Pena the new backup catcher.
"I always have been one of those players who will do anything to help my team win," Pena said in a phone interview with MLB.com on Monday. "Sometimes you can do more from the bench than on the field. I know my role. I understand my role. And I embrace my role. I know I have a Hall of Famer in front of me. My opportunities will come. All I can do is just be ready and make sure that my teammates know I will always have their back."
Pena added that he has long idolized Molina, who, he said, has set the standard behind the plate.
"You have to appreciate everything that he does," Pena said. "He's a role model for a lot of people, especially in Latin America."
Pena, 33, has played 11 seasons in the Majors, making stops in Atlanta (2005-08), Kansas City (2009-12), Detroit (2013) and, most recently, Cincinnati (2014-15). He started a career-high 84 games behind the plate for the Reds this year and threw out 13 of 58 attempting basestealers.
The switch-hitting Pena hit .273 with a career-best .334 on-base percentage. His production was boosted by playing his home games in the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. There, Pena batted .317/.371/.404 with 14 doubles in 52 games. Away from GABP, Pena hit .233/.300/.250 with three extra-base hits over 56 games.
"We kicked the tires on a lot of different things," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said of the quickly crystallizing free-agent catching market. "In the role he was going to be used in, we felt [Pena] was our best alternative. His strength is from the left side, and that's where we could use some help."
While the Cardinals have previously struggled to sell free-agent catchers on joining a club where the starting catcher hardly takes time off, the willingness to offer a multiyear deal, which the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported to be worth $5 million, minimized that hindrance with Pena, Mozeliak said.
Though the Cardinals have much more remaining on their offseason to-do list, finding a more formidable backup catcher was a priority entering the Hot Stove season. Cruz has been Molina's backup for the past four seasons, and while the organization was content with his ability to cover the catching duties on Molina's periodic days off, the Cardinals found themselves exposed at the position when Molina missed longer periods.
Injuries have kept Molina from finishing each of the past two seasons, and the Cardinals have indicated that they would like to build in more regular rest for him to improve his chances of staying healthy into October. Having Pena as an experienced backup should allow the Cardinals that luxury.
The timing of the signing is important, too, as it comes just two days before the deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players. Cruz is among those, and Mozeliak noted that he'll pursue possible trade opportunities for Cruz before Wednesday's 10:59 p.m. CT tender deadline. If nothing develops, Cruz will likely be non-tendered and become a free agent.
The addition of Pena brings the Cardinals' 40-man roster count to 37.