When you talk about the free agents on the Detroit Tigers roster this off season, the focus of the conversation tends to focus on the closer or second base, or on the impending loss of Jhonny Peralta. Somewhat under the radar is the fact that Brayan Pena, who served as Alex Avila's backup the entire season, is also a free agent.
Pena was signed as a free agent by the Tigers at the bargain rate of just $875,000 for one season after he was non-tendered by the Kansas City Royals, being arbitration for the third and final time last winter. He now has over six years of major league experience, spread across portions of nine seasons between the Atlanta Braves, the Royals and the Tigers.
The switch-hitting Pena, who is better known for his work at the plate than his work behind the plate, played a significant, probably very underrated role for the Tigers during the 2013 season. He appeared in 71 games, totaling 243 plate appearances. That's almost as much as Don Kelly!
Pena hit .297/.315/.397/.713 for the Tigers with four home runs, 22 RBI and 11 doubles. Defensively, he threw out 13 runners in 55 steal attempts for a percentage of just 24%. Obviously, some of that is on the pitchers, but suffice it to say that holding runners is not Pena's strong suit. His career CS% is 29% against a league average of 27%, for what that's worth.
I have always maintained that the most important job of a catcher is to catch. He is the quarterback of the defense, calling every pitch of every inning, even when the pitcher is changed. He needs to keep the pitchers in a rhythm, disrupt the rhythm of base runners, and know the strengths and weaknesses of every pitcher on his team and every hitter on the opposing team. Some say that catchers make the best managers, precisely because of this preparation for the game that is demanded in no other position.
A catcher's primary job is catching and calling a game. What he does behind the plate is far more important than what he does in four plate appearances or so per game. I have to laugh at awards being given to catchers based on batting average or OPS, and defense being measured solely by how many runners he throws out. Those are the statistics that are readily available to us, so that's how catchers are most often evaluated by those who don't work with them on a daily basis.
From all reports, pitchers love working with Alex Avila. I don't know if the same is true of Brayan Pena. You're not going to hear a pitcher come out and tell the press "I hate working with that guy, he doesn't know how to call a game." But you can rest assured that the Tigers know what pitchers think of their catchers, and the decision on whether to bring Pena back will very likely depend on that information. I can't make a judgment on that either way.
Back to what we know. On a roster that is pushing maximum density in the payroll department, the Tigers are in need of a few good men who won't break the bank. Pena is a relative bargain, even for a backup catcher. 64 games and 55 starts is not an insignificant role, and if he can do that job capably, the Tigers have themselves quite a bargain.
We also know that the Tiger bench, quite honestly, sucked last year. Pena was a better hitter than the likes of Ramon Santiago, Don Kelly, Hernan Perez, or Matt Tuiasosopo by a good margin. He hit from both sides of the plate, but hit right handed pitching with a .325 average and an OPS of .801.
As much as Alex Avila gets banged up, dinged up, beat up, and concussed, the Tigers would be wise to have a durable backup on the roster. Next on the depth chart is Bryan Holaday who has seen some action in the major leagues. Also on the rise is James McCann, a second round draft pick out of Arkansas in the 2011 draft, who spent the 2013 season at Erie. We're likely to see both in Lakeland next spring.
If the team decides to pursue a different catcher, the Braves' Brian McCann is available, but will be highly sought after by teams offering plenty of money. MLB Trade rumors provides this list of free agent catchers:
Henry Blanco (42)
John Buck (33)
Hector Gimenez (31)
Ramon Hernandez (38)
Brian McCann (30)
Jose Molina (38)
Dioner Navarro (30)
Wil Nieves (36)
Miguel Olivo (35)
Brayan Pena (32)
A.J. Pierzynski (37)
Humberto Quintero (34)
Guillermo Quiroz (32)
Carlos Ruiz (35)
Jarrod Saltalamacchia (29)
Kelly Shoppach (34)
Geovany Soto (31)
Kurt Suzuki (30) (club option)
Taylor Teagarden (30)
Yorvit Torrealba (35)
Should they decide to go another direction, it seems logical to go with a right-handed bat to compliment Avila.
Given the amount that the Tigers are spending on their starting players, it's not likely that they'd be willing to spend a lot on a backup catcher, even if he starts a third of their games. Pena was fine in his role in 2013 as long as the team is happy with how he called the games and as long as the pitchers are happy to work with him.