With Jose Molina becoming a free agent this offseason, the Rays will look at all their options to find a catcher to spell Jose Lobaton in 2014. Molina could be brought back, but there are many other options available. A catcher could be acquired in a David Price trade, or Andrew Freidman and Co. could turn to the free agent market. One potential option should the Rays go the latter route is Brayan Pena.
Pena spent the 2013 season with the Detroit Tigers after previously spending time with the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves. Pena was signed to be a backup to Alex Avila, but due to Avila missing time because of injury, Pena ended up appearing in 71 games at catcher and making a career-high 243 plate appearances. His overall line was a pleasant surprise for the Tigers as he hit .297/.315/.397, good for a .713 OPS, which was better than household names like Russell Martin and Matt Wieters. Pena also mashed right handed pitching to a .801 OPS. Defensively, Pena threw out 24% of runners, just below the league average of 26%. Could Pena’s 2013 performance make him a player the Rays could seriously consider?
Overall there are many things that make Pena attractive to the Rays. Seeing as the Rays are always cost oriented, Pena fits well. After making $875,000 in 2014, Pena seems in line for a slight raise. However, a one year deal at just above $1 Million would be reasonable. The Rays are always looking for ways to find value at cheap prices, and signing Pena cheap would shore up some money to spend elsewhere. Pena also has a solid reputation as a pitch framer. While Jose Molina will always be the king of framing pitches, Pena provides good value as a pitch framer. Research done by Mike Fast at baseball prospectus shows Pena to have saved 19 runs by pitch framing from 2007-2011. Pena could provide value to the Rays as a part time, defensive minded cathcer. While Lobaton and Pena would not provide a platoon, as both hit righties better in 2013, Joe Maddon could elect to start them based on compatibilty with his starting pitcher and receive an clear offensive upgrade while not losing all that much on defense as well.
The Rays will have some worries to think about if they do consider signing Pena. Pena’s 2013 OPS against righties was very good, but it is likely he will regress closer to his career .673 OPS against righties in 2014. No player is as good as his best season. Pena’s 2013 was head and shoulders better than Molina at the plate in 2013 as he managed a a .713 OPS compared to .594, but for his career, Pena’s .651 OPS is barely better than Molina’s .627 mark. He would fill a similar role that Jose Molina has the last two years, but at the same time, while his pitch framing value is good, Molina’s is much better. As a whole in his career, Pena has never been much of a threat with the bat, and will not provide a significant upgrade over Jose Molina. Pena may have more offensive upside, but the comparison between him and Molina is essentially a wash. But with Molina getting up in there in age, Pena could be a real option to take his place without much of a hitch.
Despite the negative aspects to his game, Pena could be a valuable piece to the Rays in 2013. Pena will come cheap, which is always a big deal for the budget-minded Rays, and he could be an alternative to Molina without raising the cost. Signing Pena would allow the Rays to focus their available money on 1B and DH. While Lobaton and Pena have posted similar numbers offensively throughout their carrers, Pena plays much better defense at catcher. Thus, Pena might make a better option than Lobaton on any given day in a similar vein to Molina. And while Pena was never be one to help his team much with the bat, if he can continue to build on his 2013 season and proivide good defense, he would be a good option for the Rays. If the Rays sign Pena, they would be set for another catcher tandem but they could dream of a situation where starting when catcher over the other does not lead to a major drop-off at the plate. Between his strong defense and potential at the plate, Pena is definitely someone that Andrew Freidman should explore signing as an alternative to Molina for 2013 and possibly beyond.