“In reality, they’re a powerhouse. The Cardinals are the standard in a lot of ways. They’ve built an incredibly healthy baseball organization and a thriving, robust business operation and they combine those things really well. I don’t think they’ve reached their potential yet. I think there isn’t a player in baseball that they couldn’t go get if they wanted to. If they sensed a threat and they wanted to put their foot on the gas I think it’s almost unlimited what they could do.”–Cubs president Theo Epstein, November 2014
The Cardinals made their first free agent signing of the 2015-16 offseason, inking Brayan Pena to a two-year, $5 million deal. Using Epstein’s quote to start off a post with that news would seem to be incongruous at best, sarcastic at worst, but I believe that it’s the first sign that the leviathan is waking. Consider the following:
1) This was a move that the club didn’t have to make. While none of us were overly enthused with the idea of Tony Cruz as the backup to Yadier Molina, pretty much everyone had accepted it as a fait accompli. There was no real serious discussion about the Cardinals going out and bringing in someone else to take the position and there wasn’t anyone in the system that could do it. Instead, John Mozeliak saw a place to upgrade and went out and found a solution. Mo was proactive here and if he’ll do this solving small problems, I think we can be excited about what he’ll do to fix the bigger ones.
2) This was a financial layout the club didn’t have to make. Cruz would have probably made maybe a million this year, $1.25 million the next if he was still around. Pena is going to make that total just this season. Again, it’s not a huge outlay of money, but for all of those crying about how Bill DeWitt is a penny-pinching cheapskate, this goes directly against their narrative.
My feeling is that this is an indication that the Cardinals have seen the threat posed by the Cubs and Pirates and are going to be aggressive in dealing with it. I’m not saying that by Christmas they’ll have both Jason Heyward and David Price jerseys selling like hotcakes in the team store, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, either. Mo’s usually a creative guy, but sometimes the direct route is the best route.
As for the actual move, I think it’s a positive thing. Pena’s worst years tend to be better than Cruz’s best and he’s a solid bat that’s used to being a backup. Jon Doble pointed out on Twitter that some of his success in 2015 was due to his home ballpark, but I can live with that. Even when you completely factor out Great American, his numbers still topped anything Cruz has put up. I’m not saying that Molina can start on the road to retirement by any means, but I do think we’ve raised the backup catcher bar from laying on the ground to something a crawling infant can go under.
The question is, of course, how Mike Matheny will use him. Will he be willing to get Pena out there on a regular basis, say twice a week, and give Yadi some more days off? My initial inclination is that he will. Pena’s a ten-year veteran and he’s had some success. While he’s not been one of “Matheny’s guys”, I think he can respect the body of work and trust him to be respectable if he’s in the lineup. Of course, it’s probably going to take Pena producing early on in those situations to keep that going, but I think Matheny will be willing, at least to start, to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I also think there’s probably been more discussion/mandate from Mo about resting Yadi and actually having him fresh (and hopefully uninjured) for the playoffs. Perhaps this was what Matheny said he needed to be comfortable with less Molina, perhaps this is Mo saying we are going to have less Molina and I’m giving you the tools to make that happen. Either way, I think we’ll see more of Pena this year than we’ve seen of Cruz over the last couple of seasons. I’m not sure we’ll go two weeks into the season before he makes his debut or see him only have 10 AB by the end of April. Cruz had been known to do that.
As for Mr. Cruz, Mo says he’ll try to trade him between now and Wednesday’s non-tender deadline, but it would seem unlikely that it will happen. There’s not going to be much of a market for him (no matter the legend that he’d be starting for a lot of teams) and unless there is more than one team that wants his services, odds are he’ll be a non-tender free agent and have to find work that way.
It’s a nice move to open things up, but obviously Mozeliak isn’t done. There has been an awakening….have you felt it?