In a familiar face, the Cardinals have found their backup catcher.
In 2016, Eric Fryer enjoyed a successful stint with St. Louis, cut short for business reasons. The Cardinals had committed to Brayan Pena for two years, and still owed him several million dollars. Understandably, they wanted to try to salvage what remained of a faltering experiment.
When the team officially closed the door on the Pena project by granting him his unconditional release earlier in the winter, it left the Cardinals in need of somebody to play second fiddle to Yadier Molina. Since Molina typically takes very few days off throughout the season, the Cardinals were not prepared to waste top catching prospect Carson Kelly in an understudy role at a stage in his career where game repetitions are so valuable.
Whomever the Cardinals brought in, he would have to be content with scant playing time and short-term money. After trying their hand at allocating legitimate financial resources to the backup catcher position with Pena, the new acquisition would only need to bridge the gap until Kelly is ready for the big leagues.
A reunion with Fryer made too much sense.
Though the Pirates snatched him away from the Cardinals with a waiver claim last season, Pittsburgh non-tendered Fryer earlier in the month, allowing him to sign with any team. After reportedly having interest in his services, St. Louis made it official Monday, signing Fryer to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training, making him the presumptive back up for the 2017 season.
Because the Cardinals have a full 40-man roster after the signing of Dexter Fowler, there is currently no room for Fryer, which explains his current status as a non-roster invitee. However, when teams regain the ability to use the long-term disabled list, Zach Duke’s roster spot will open up, allowing the Cardinals to add Fryer to the roster before the regular season begins.
Fryer, 31, saw the field infrequently during his run with the Cardinals last year, but swung the bat well enough that it irritated Cardinals fans when the team let him go to Pittsburgh for nothing. That Pena showed to be in poor condition upon his return – ultimately landing back on the DL less than two weeks later – rendered the loss of a competent back up in Fryer one of the more puzzling roster circumstances of the season.
Though Fryer slashed an impressive .368/.415/.421 line in 24 games with the Cardinals, his bat cooled with Pittsburgh, where he went 17-78 (.218) with a .300 OBP and paltry .269 SLG. His caught-stealing rate also took a nosedive after he left the Cardinals; while in St. Louis he threw out 4 of 6 (67%) attempted base stealers, he was only 3 for 22 (14%) in his time with the Pirates.
While Fryer’s numbers as a Cardinal last summer probably aren't an accurate baseline for what he will offer next season, his familiarity with the coaches and pitching staff was enough to make this a sensible, low-cost move.
If nothing else, the reintroduction of Fryer to the fold Monday is another indication of the Cardinals roster slowly taking shape. While John Mozeliak could pull off a surprise with another big splash into the free agent pool, minor moves like this one are more likely as spring approaches.
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