After Salvador Perez was called up and impressed both offensively and defensively, he placed a stranglehold on the starting catcher spot for the foreseeable future. Brayan Pena and Manny Pina also spent time behind the plate in 2011, and both will likely compete for the backup catcher role next spring.
The 29-year-old Pena has the edge in experience. That could be important to the Royals, who have gone out of their way to pick up veteran backstops to mentor the young catchers in 2010 and 2011. Pena's spent parts of the last three seasons with the Royals, hitting .257/.302/.369 in 597 plate appearances. That's good for an 82 OPS+, which isn't bad for a catcher who only plays two or three days a week. He also has the advantage in that he's a switch hitter.
Despite showing adequate arm strength and throwing out 36 percent of attempted basestealers in his career, the knock on Pena has always been his defense. For example, his failure to block home plate in a game at Texas last season contributed to the Rangers scoring the game-winning run. Pena worked hard on that part of his game after that instance and stonewalled several runners at the plate as the season wore on.
The joy with which Pena plays the game is evident, especially last season after he prevented runners from touching the plate at all. He seems to be happy to be playing baseball in Kansas City (he once offered to sign a 10-year extension for the league minimum salary), and the Royals seem to be happy to have him, especially with his ties to the Atlanta organization. He's eligible for arbitration again after avoiding that process by signing for $660,000 last year.
Acquired in 2009 with outfielder Tim Smith for right-handed pitcher Danny Gutierrez, the 24-year-old Pina is regarded as one of the stronger catch-and-throw guys in the Royals organization. He spent four games with the Major League club in 2011 and impressed starting pitcher Luke Hochevar, who said he instantly felt comfortable throwing to the rookie in a home start against Baltimore.
Pina is a similar hitter to Pena in that he doesn't strike out much and has limited power. He showed an impressive eye at the plate in 2011 with Triple-A Omaha, drawing 34 walks against only 37 strikeouts in 259 plate appearances. In fact, his plate discipline and power have both improved since reaching the Triple-A level, an encouraging sign that he may develop into a better hitter than Pena in the long-run.
|Pina impressed in limited MLB time last year|
What Pina has going for him the most at the moment is that Ned Yost seems to have been very impressed with the work Pina did in four games last year. However, even that may not be enough when it comes time to pare down the roster. Pina's remaining options may make the decision much easier if the choice is between these two catchers.
Manny Pina and Brayan Pena are very similar in the skills they bring to the table. Neither will kill a team offensively or defensively. Pena is probably the stronger hitter at the moment, while Pina has the advantage in defense. It'll all come down to what the Royals are looking for in a caddy for Perez.
Unless the Royals hit the free agent market again and sign a veteran like Rod Barajas, Pena's experience, switch-hitting ability, adequate defense and relatively inexpensive salary make him the best choice over Pina next season.