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St. Louis Cardinals should keep Fryer until Pena gets established

The St. Louis Cardinals should seriously consider carrying three catchers when Brayan Pena returns from the disabled list Tuesday.

Pena was signed to a two-year contract over the off-season to serve as Yadier Molina’s understudy. But those plans were derailed at the end of spring training when Pena injured his knee, requiring surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation.

In the meantime, Eric Fryer, a journeyman backstop, emerged as a pretty good find for the Redbirds.

Fryer, 30, has hit .368 for St. Louis in 24 games, providing solid defense and a number of key hits.

Pena has struggled terribly since being sent to the minors to try to get up to game speed. He hit .200 in five games for the Class AA Memphis Redbirds and .188 in nine games with Class AA Springfield.

The Cardinals are in a jam because it seems, at least at this point, that Fryer is the better player. But they signed Pena to a two-year deal. So it’s unlikely the Birds would release him and eat that contract with absolutely nothing to show for it.

So... St. Louis should make the best of a bad situation by keeping Fryer when they add Pena to the roster.

Why? Because the Cardinals want to get Molina more rest as he pushes well into his thirties. And it seems manager Mike Matheny is reluctant to make in-game swaps involving catchers with only two receivers on the roster.

If the starter is lifted and the backup gets hurt, you’re in a jam because there are no other experienced catchers to turn to. But if you have three catchers, the first two can be swapped out with insurance remaining on the bench.

Pena would be a great third catcher because of two things: First, he’s capable of playing first base and third base in a pinch. He could do more than just sit on the bench waiting for Yadi to need a breather. Second, he’s a switch hitter. If he gets his bat going, he’s add some versatility as a pinch hitter. He’d give the Birds a right-handed option at first base to compliment lefty swingers Matt Adams and Brandon Moss.

The problem is that someone else will have to go to the minors to make room on the MLB roster.

Before Sunday, I would have said that Tommy Pham was the easy choice. He was looking up at the .200 mark and the Cardinals have plenty of outfield coverage with Kolten Wong back in the big leagues, seeing time in left and center.

But his two home runs Sunday may make it tough for general manager John Mozeliak to send out a hot hand.

Still, I would prefer to see the Cardinals keep Fryer around -- at least until they figure out if Pena is going to be able to regain his stroke at the plate. Pena is 34 and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that this knee could be a lingering problem at this stage of his career.

Could the Cardinals make a move involving struggling closer Trevor Rosenthal? Maybe they could send him to Memphis to work on his dream of converting to become a starting pitcher.

Is Pena’s poor hitting performance in the minors a matter of scraping off rust? Or is he still hurting, unwilling to admit he has a problem with his knee because he wants to get back into the majors?

The Cardinals can’t afford to lose if they gamble by letting another team pick up Fryer.