Salvador Perez is going to be the Royals’ regular catcher in 2012 and, barring injury or a complete implosion (he wouldn’t be the first 21 year old to do so at the major league level), Sal will catch somewhere in excess of 120 of the Royals’ games.  As such, whether Manny Pina, Brayan Pena or someone not on the roster yet becomes the back-up catcher, their contributions on the field will likely be minimal.

Still, one of the undeniable constants of major league rosters since the dawn of baseball is that every one has to carry a back-up catcher.  There is a chance that 24 year old Manny Pina could be that player.

Acquired late in the 2009 season along with outfielder Tim Smith in exchange for pitcher Danny Gutierrez, Pina came with the reputation as a strong armed defender with a suspect bat.   At that time, given the state of the organization’s catching corps, Manny was deemed to be at the top of the minor league depth chart.  

Pina was coming off a 2009 AA season with the Rangers’ Frisco team in which he hit .259/.313/.393 and threw out 32% of potential base stealers.  He returned to spend most of 2010 back in AA, this time with Northwest Arkansas, and put up virtually an identical hitting line.   Pina did throw out 42% of potential runners in 2010, but committed nine more errors, albeit with two less passed balls.

Of course, that’s the rub when it comes to assessing catchers:  those raw numbers tell only a small part of what he may or may not have contributed to the team’s defense and, more importantly, his team’s pitchers.  At the time of the trade, Baseball America labeled Pina as a catcher with a plus arm but the rest of his defensive work was less polished.   Last summer, they noted that Salvador Perez was both a superior hitter and defender.   Earlier this fall, Greg Schaum over at Pine Tar Press indicated that Manny had “learned to call a good game and was a solid defender”.

What level of defender Manny Pina might be in the majors is up for debate, but it seems the consensus (one I agree with) is that Pina will be more than adequate behind the plate, especially in a back-up role.  The question comes down to his bat, which has produced a career minor league line of .250/.317/.358 spread over seven seasons.

As noted above, Pina slugged above his career norm in his two season in AA, but it was the Texas League after all.   One can also check the data at Fangraphs and find that Manny has a career BABIP of an ‘unlucky’ .250.   However, that number has consistently been ‘unlucky’ throughout his professional career and it leads one to believe that it might not be so much ‘bad luck’ as it is a lack of hitting the ball hard with any consistency. 

One interesting number in Pina’s career happened last year in Omaha.  After not topping an on-base percentage of .319 since 2005, Pina posted an OBP of .365 in 2011 and did so despite hitting just .239.    Without significantly increasing his strikeout percentage, Manny doubled his walk rate.    Whether that is an actual development or just a blip on the statistical landscape remains to be seen, but the ability to up his on-base percentage consistently may speed Pina to the majors.

Of course, the bigger question is who will be the back-up for Kansas City?  Right now, I think Brayan Pena has the inside track simply because he has caught (perhaps not caught ‘well’, but caught nonetheless) 186 major league games and is used to spending the better part of the season on the bench.   While Pena’s bat has declined in each of his three seasons as a Kansas City Royal, he still has some value as a bat off the bench.

That move would allow Pina to remain as Omaha’s primary catcher (there’s no real pressure behind him to make room in the system) and see if he can continue this new found ability to get on base.   By 2013, Perez will have hopefully established himself as a mainstay behind the plate and the Royals could then opt to go with the better defense that Pina provides as a backup.

Of course, all that assumes that Dayton Moore does not pick up a veteran backup at some point prior to Opening Day.   Frankly, I still think that is the more likely happening this off-season.