Several sources are now reporting that the Reds have reached agreement with free agent catcher Brayan Pena (31) on a two-year contract. Update: Now official. The exact provisions aren’t available yet, but Enrique Rojas (ESPN) estimates that the Reds will pay Pena $1.25 million in 2014.
Pena is a journeyman backup catcher, having spent parts of nine seasons with three different clubs: Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals and last season with the Detroit Tigers.
What have the Reds acquired in Pena and what does this mean for the roster and the Reds more broadly?
Pena is a switch-hitter. Last season with the Tigers, Pena’s production in 243 plate appearances (.297/.315/.397) was well above his career line (258/.292/.359). Far from having a “breakout” season at age 31 though, Pena’s bump in batting average in 2013 is entirely explained by enhanced luck on BABIP, which was .315 in 2013 compared to a career BABIP of .276. His contact rate was actually a little lower in 2013 than it had been in previous seasons.
If, as new manager Bryan Price suggested in his press conference, the Reds are going to emphasize grinding out at bats, Pena is a curious sign. His walk rate has been in free-fall the past three seasons. From 2008-2010, he walked in 6.7% of his plate appearances (major league average about 7.9%). But was walk rate has declined severely in 2011 (5.0%), 2012 (4.0%) and 2013 (2.5%).
Pena’s walk-rate in 2013 would have been last among Reds’ hitters. In comparison, Chris Heisey was the lowest for the Reds at 3.7%.
Pena is below average in controlling the running game. Over the past two seasons, he threw out 29 of 94 attempted base stealers (31.5%). That number for MLB as a whole is 37.3%.
Brayan Pena rates slightly below average in most advanced defensive metrics. Huge caveat that defensive metrics are sketchy and worst at evaluating catchers.
What this Means for Ryan Hanigan
Pena’s signing obviously gives the Reds three major-league catchers, counting Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco. Reports are already circulating that the Reds will move Ryan Hanigan and listing possible suitors for him.
Update: A list of trade suitors could include the Yankees, Rays, Mets, Phillies, Blue Jays, White Sox and Rangers.
Hanigan is entering his final year of Reds team control and eligible for third-year arbitration. Hanigan is coming off a fairly poor year at the plate (.198/.306/.261) that didn’t improve measurably after he returned from injury (.208/.330/.234 – second half). The Reds could try to find a trade partner for Hanigan or just non-tender him (decline arbitration).
Hanigan is vastly superior to Pena in terms of defense, controlling the running game and familiarity with the pitching staff.
Update 2: Matt Klaassen at FanGraphs has a lengthy article on the signing, with emphasis on analyzing Ryan Hanigan. He’s fairly optimistic that the Reds will be able to find a trade match.
What this means for the Reds
It’s hard to interpret this move as anything other than unambiguously turning the catching job over to Devin Mesoraco and disrupting the current culture of starting pitchers assigned to specific catchers.
In theory, it’s possible the Reds could have accomplished those goals with Hanigan as the #2 catcher, but maybe internal clubhouse dynamics might have prevented the successful transition. But sticking with Hanigan would have also avoided the Reds being committed to a two-year contract as they are now with Pena.
Nation member WVRedlegs suggested the interesting possibility that Pena is being brought in as Aroldis Chapman’s personal catcher. The two players do share a Cuban background, both having defected. Having a catcher that speaks Chapman’s language (and Johnny Cueto’s) could be a plus. On the other hand, Hanigan and Mesoraco have caught Chapman for a few years now, so it’s not like there isn’t a familiarity there. Still, it’s a provocative theory.
Update: Pena caught Chapman in off-season workouts in Miami.
The Reds may have saved $1 million in payroll for 2014 if Pena’s contract comes in around the number above. Estimates of Hanigan’s arbitration-determined salary are in the $2.3 million range.
We should begin to pace the room with concern if the Reds praise Pena’s “breakout season” in their introductory press conference. You would certainly hope that the Reds’ experience with Willy Taveras would have been sufficiently terrifying that they wouldn’t make the mistake of ignoring single-season BABIP surges. He isn’t an accomplished hitter, has awful plate discipline and below average defense.
If Pena has been signed as the Reds starting catcher, save yourself some misery and begin looking for another baseball team to support.
If this move instead signals the start of the Devin Mesoraco Era as the Reds’ everyday starting catcher, allow yourself a cautious smile.