The St. Louis Cardinals granted backup catcher Brayan Pena his unconditional release Monday, a week after designating him for assignment following the signing of reliever Brett Cecil.
Pena signed a two-year, $5 million dollar contract with the Cardinals following the 2015 season with the hopes of alleviating the workload of an aging Yadier Molina.
The plan was quickly derailed, however, when Pena injured his left knee by slipping in the dugout during the final week of Spring Training, requiring surgery.
Pena never fully recovered, and the ripple effect reached Molina as well.
During a season in which the Cardinals planned to limit their Gold Glover behind the plate, Molina ended up catching a career high 1,218 and 1/3 innings.
On the other hand, Pena caught just 19 innings while going 2-for-9 at the plate in 2016. He made a brief return from the disabled list in late June and it became immediately evident he was not ready to play. He landed back on the disabled list a week later, and would miss the rest of the season.
Even though the Brayan Pena era has uneventfully (though somewhat expensively) come and gone, the Cardinals may have an answer in the form of younger legs.
The door is wide open for prospect Carson Kelly, the only catcher on the Cardinals' 40-man roster other than Molina.
Kelly got a taste of the majors last year as a September call-up, notching a double and an RBI in 13 at bats and 36 innings without a passed ball, and could be the heir apparent behind the plate at Busch.
Kelly spent most of 2016 splitting time between AA Springfield and AAA Memphis, enjoying his best minor league campaign to date. He batted .287 with Springfield, and .292 with Memphis and hit six homers and 17 doubles between two levels.
However the Cardinals must consider what's best for Kelly's development. Since his conversion to catcher from the infield, the 22-year-old has made steady improvement (first in his defense, then most recently at the plate) when given steady work. Spending a season on the bench behind perhaps the best defensive catcher of a generation would be a great education, but Kelly's growth could stagnate if not given time to apply the lessons.
Alberto Rosario was called up from AAA to assume back up duties when Pena made his second trip to the disabled list and remains in the organization after being outrighted off the 40-man. He batted .184 in 20 games for the Cardinals and could be a stopgap solution. The free agent market is also rich with experienced backstops who would command moderate salaries should the Cardinals want a veteran.
Pena's departure, while unexpected, creates another focus point in the ever-growing list of decisions facing GM John Mozeliak as he guides the Cardinals through their transition.
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