By all accounts, Brayan Pena is a heckuva guy:  upbeat, happy, a non-complainer when it comes to his limited playing time.  While we like to boil baseball down to the numbers, Pena is one of those ‘team chemistry guys’.   Twenty-five guys in one locker room, one plane, the same hotel for six months straight:  you need some chemistry.

We can debate the overall value of good clubhouse guys, but it is obvious that the Dayton Moore led Royals’ put a high premium on that variable.  They traded Mike Aviles for a younger version of himself in no small part because of Aviles’ complaints about not being a full-time player and then traded that player, Yamaico Navarro, just a few months later mostly because they were concerned about his impact on the clubhouse.

The willingness to accept their roles is no small part of the reason Brayan Pena and Mitch Maier made the team last year and have the inside track on being Royals again in 2012.  Both guys play sparingly, but when they do, they are ready to go and play with enthusiasm.   They are different players, to be sure, but the attitude and what they bring to the team from a chemistry standpoint do have value.

Of course, that is all fine and good, but the object of major league baseball is to win.  It is nice to have happy players who get along, but it is better to have guys that can, you know, really play the game well.  In that respect, the days of Brayan Pena as a Royal may be winding down.

Pena brings an immediate appeal as being a catcher who can switch-hit, but his hitting has been in gradual decline.   Although he has received a fairly similar amount of playing time in his three seasons with Kansas City, Pena’s batting average has decayed:

  • 2009 – .273
  • 2010 – .253
  • 2011 – .248

So has his on-base percentage:

  • 2009 – .318
  • 2010 – .306
  • 2011 – .288

And his slugging:

  • 2009 – .442
  • 2010 – .335
  • 2011 – .338

As has Pena’s wOBA:

  • 2009 – .325
  • 2010 – .290
  • 2011 – .276

After hitting six home runs in 183 plate appearances in 2009, Brayan manged only one dinger the next year and just three in 240 plate appearances in 2011.  Oddly, all three 2011 homers were three run shots all in Texas – baseball’s a funny game.

On top of the declining offense, Pena is not a very good defensive catcher.   The Royals talk of him being ‘improved’ and ‘a hard worker’ behind the plate and I would agree, but improving from truly awful is a long way from being ‘okay’.   We all know that there is no good metric to quantify a catcher’s defense, so we have to read between the lines of what people around the game say.   When it comes to Pena, they are polite in their assessment:  kind of like how you might complement the really nice woman who works in your office on whatever ill-fitting, poorly selected outfit she wears to your Christmas party.

If Brayan Pena was 23 years old it would be one thing, but he turned 30 this January.   His closest comp on Baseball Reference is Bob Brenly, who actually had a break out All-Star season at age 30, but it is hard to see that happening with Pena.   Given that the current plan is to have Salvador Perez catch a ton of games (I have heard 135-140 floated out by the Royals themselves), the back-up catcher is hardly a position to wring hands over.

In a perfect world, it might be nice to have a veteran catcher with good defensive skills to mentor Perez (frankly, the Royals acquired Matt Treanor one year too early), but on the flip side, even those types of players would like to catch more than 28 games a season.   In that respect, Brayan Pena may be just the guy to back-up Salvador.

Frankly, if Salvador Perez flops in 2012, who the back-up catcher is will not keep the Royals from underachieving.  That is how important he is to this team and there is no way the Royals can go find someone who can provide insurance for that scenario.  They cannot afford to spend even decent money on a back-up catcher and, frankly, find me someone who would realistically be that guy.  I don’t know exactly what tree catchers grow on, but I do know that tree is really, really scarce.

Come April, I see the Royals breaking camp with Brayan Pena as their back-up catcher (he is out of options, by the way) mainly because he’s harmless.   The team is used to him, they know what they are going to get and, every once in a while – particularly in Texas – he will get you some hits.   The organization will likely have Manny Pina, a good defender, and Max Ramirez, a bad defender, catching in AAA, which makes more sense for both of those players than have them sitting on the major league bench.

In a perfect 2012 scenario, back-up catcher is the most irrelevant position on the the Royals’ roster.   If it turns out not to be irrelevant, then the Royals have big problems no matter who is filling that position.

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