It looks like Dave Dombrowski was no more comfortable than I was about the thought of going into the 2013 season with green youngsters (who hadn’t exactly proven themselves at the plate in the minors) as the only backups for Alex Avila. The Tigers are signing former Royal Brayan Pena to fill that role, though we have no word yet as to the terms of the deal. In order to clear space on the 40-man roster, the Tigers designated LHP Matt Hoffman for assignment.
Obviously I agree with the basic idea – of signing a backup catcher – but why Pena? What the Tigers need is a complement for Alex Avila, who is a good all around catcher but has recurring knee problems and does not hit lefties well at all. It should not be hard, relatively speaking, to find a righty catcher who only hits lefties well, should it??? And if we’re settling for a replacement level bat (overall) it shouldn’t be hard to find an unambiguously good defensive catcher, should it??? Pena really isn’t either of those things: he is a switch-hitter who has put up moderately better numbers over his careers hitting against righties than against lefties (a .646 OPS as opposed to a .613). He has also been, according to Fangraphs FLD and DRS, a below-average (though not by any means awful) defensive catcher.
Of course evaluating backups on talent is bound to involve some bias. What we’d all like is to see Avila play every day and if he can’t we’d like him to be replaced by a player of equivalent talent, unfortunately those are hard to come by – even if you’re looking to sign a regular catcher on a lucrative contract. Any backup (like Gerald Laird) is bound to look weak in comparison. That’s not really my complaint. I’d say Pena is – overall – basically a replacement level catcher. According to Fangraphs he has been precisely at replacement level in what amounts to about two full seasons behind the dish. According to Baseball Reference he has been somewhat worse at -0.3 WAR over the same span. He’s capable of more, though, as far as “ceiling” is concerned. If you’re concerned that your regular catcher will miss a lot of time and you just don’t have organizational depth at the position (since you traded it away to get Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante) you could do a lot worse than Brayan Pena. If you want a weak-side platoon guy to make 40 starts to spell Alex Avila, you could also do a lot better.