JUPITER, Fla. -- A backup catching job that seemed earmarked for Francisco Pena is now up for grabs.
Taking advantage of a free-agent market still flush with players seeking employment, the Cardinals agreed to terms on a Minor League deal with veteran catcher Matt Wieters, who was expected to arrive in town to complete his physical Wednesday evening. Wieters will join the team for workouts on Thursday, at which time the club will evaluate how close he is to being game-ready.
Wieters, a 10-year veteran, went unsigned this offseason after an underwhelming two-year stint with the Nationals. Over the span of his $21 million contract, he slashed .230/.303/.355 with a 71 OPS+. Wieters appeared in 199 games, starting 177 behind the plate.
Once he agreed to consider coming to camp under a Minor League contract, the Cardinals, who have a full 40-man roster, became a fit. Wieters is aware that after a career as a primary catcher, he is entering a situation where the backup is likely to play sparingly behind Yadier Molina.
Over the last decade, Molina has caught 77 percent of the team’s innings.
“Ever since I’ve been with the Cardinals, it’s been a challenge to bring in backup catchers who are willing to take a role that is likely to be limited,” general manager Michael Girsch said. “I think, in general, we’re able to sign guys who are in their 30s and are looking more at playoff contention as opposed to the follow-up contract sometimes. You’d have to talk to Matt [on Thursday] to see how he made his decision, but I think it helps when a guy has done pretty well in his career financially and is focused on other things besides getting 300 plate appearances.”
A four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner, Wieters adds a new wrinkle into a catching competition that hardly seemed like one when spring opened. Pena, who signed a Minor League deal with the club over the winter, was the front-runner to back up Molina for a second consecutive season.
Pena has the edge as far as familiarity with the pitching staff. Wieters brings the higher ceiling offensively and the bonus of being a switch-hitter.
St. Louis manager Mike Shildt spoke with Pena about the changing circumstances after Pena’s start behind the plate on Tuesday.
“He embraces the competition as well. He understands it,” Shildt said. “We feel good about Frankie and some of the other guys we have in camp -- [Andrew] Knizner and [Joe] Hudson and some of the guys. But ultimately, it comes down to depth and competition, and you have an experienced, All-Star caliber performer in the past who can come in and compete for a job. He’s out there, and I applaud us for always looking to create that opportunity for our best club.”
The Cardinals reaffirmed Wednesday that signing Wieters is not an indication of any setback with Molina, who is coming off left knee surgery. Shildt announced earlier this week that Molina is expected to catch during the final two weeks of Grapefruit League play. His debut as a designated hitter is likely to happen within the next week to 10 days.