Mozeliak’s challenge – finding someone who wants to be Molina’s backup

Joe Hudson, signed to a minor-league contract last month by the Cardinals, might be a candidate to be the team’s backup catcher. (USA Today Sports)

By Rob Rains

LAS VEGAS – It might be one of John Mozeliak’s most challenging tasks – finding someone who wants to be the Cardinals’ backup catcher behind Yadier Molina.

The job comes with almost all of the perks associated with being a major-league player, except for one important fact – it offers a severe lack of playing time.

“I’ve been dealing with that challenge most of my career,” said Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations.

Since he became the team’s general manager prior to the 2008 season, Mozeliak has watched the Cardinals go through five primary backup catchers while Molina established himself as the most durable catcher in the game.

Over the 11 seasons from 2008 through 2018, Molina has started behind the plate in 1,404 of the Cardinals’ 1,782 games – or 79 percent. The pace has been even higher the last four seasons, even as Molina reached the mid 30s, with Molina starting 526 of a possible 648 games, or 81 percent, since 2015.

Over those four years, no other catcher has started more than 30 games in a season – and Francisco Pena reached that mark last season only because of a severe injury Molina suffered when he was hit by a foul tip that required emergency surgery.

Tony Cruz had the longest tenure as Molina’s backup over the last decade, serving in that role for four years, and only once started more than 30 games in a season – 35 in 2014.

After going through Jason LaRue, Gerald Laird, Cruz, Alberto Rosario, Eric Fryer and Pena as Molina’s primary backups, the Cardinals are once again in the market for somebody to fill that role next season.

Pena is a candidate to return to the Cardinals, but became a minor-league free agent after the season and is exploring options with other teams that could offer the possibility of more playing time.

The Cardinals had projected that Carson Kelly would be the backup this season before he was included in the package sent to Arizona last week in the trade for Paul Goldschmidt.

In reality, that really would not have been a good fit anyway. Kelly served as Molina’s backup for most of the second half of the 2017 season and suffered a setback in his performance, both offensively and defensively, because of a lack of playing time.

Despite his advancing age – he will turn 37 next July – Molina has shown no signs of slowing down and is still performing at a high level, winning his ninth Rawlings Gold Glove last season. He has two years remaining on his current contract.

Mozeliak said this week at the winter meetings that it was “possible, but doubtful” the Cardinals would be able to fill that role through a trade instead of signing a free agent.

They do have one internal candidate for the job. Joe Hudson, 27, was signed as a minor-league free agent last month. A former sixth-round pick by the Reds out of Notre Dame in 2012, Hudson played in their system until the middle of last season, when his contract was purchased by the Angels.

Hudson made his major-league debut for the Angels, appearing in eight games, but was designated for assignment after the season and became a free agent.

A small group of veteran free agent catchers on the market was decreased by one on Tuesday when Chris Herrmann signed with the Athletics. The two best options remaining for the Cardinals could be  Rene Rivera, 35, and Martin Maldonado, who is 32.

General Manager Michael Girsch said Tuesday he thought the Cardinals had made progress in their search but “there is nothing exciting to report.”

With Kelly’s departure, the top catcher in the Cardinals’ farm system is Andrew Knizner, who is expected to be the regular catcher at Memphis this season.

If the Cardinals had their choice, getting a backup who bats left-handed would be preferred but Mozeliak said, “We don’t have those options.”

Other news and notes from Tuesday at the winter meetings:

* The Cardinals did add a left-handed hitter to the roster, acquiring Drew Robinson from the Texas Rangers in a deal for third baseman Patrick Wisdom.

Robinson, 26, appeared in 95 games for the Rangers over the last two years and the Cardinals like the fact he can play second, third, shortstop and all three outfield spots. Even though he has struggled offensively in the majors, Girsch pointed out he has hit well, and shown some power, in Triple A the last few seasons.

“He’s a better fit for our roster given that (Jedd) Gyorko and (Yairo) Munoz already are right-handed utility guys,” Girsch said. “We were looking to provide Patrick with a place where he would have a better opportunity … He (Robinson) has a history of being a very good performer at Triple A.”

Girsch said Robinson will come to spring training with a chance to win a major-league job.

“I don’t think this closes the door on anything,” Girsch said. “,,, We just don’t have many left-handed bats on our roster.”

Robinson was a fourth-round round pick by the Rangers out of a Las Vegas high school in 2010.

* At the moment Dexter Fowler, projected to be the opening day right fielder next year, is not on the schedule of players coming to the Cardinals’ Winter Warmup next month. He also missed the event last year because of a family commitment.

Fowler, however, is scheduled to sign autographs at a private event a week earlier, on Jan. 12, in Hoopeston, Ill. A poster promoting that event called Fowler a “World Series Champion” and featured two photos of him in a Cubs uniform and one in a Cardinals uniform.

Girsch said he was not aware why Fowler is not listed on the schedule of players appearing at the Warmup.

* Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, attending his first winter meetings, will have his turn on Wednesday in the parade of managers holding media sessions.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

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