Detroit Tigers: The Ramón Peña Effect
The international signing period has been changed to January 2021. One name among a few has made impactful for the Detroit Tigers: Ramón Peña.
Originally, this piece was going to be about the best Detroit Tigers’ international signings. However, when I started my research, I discovered Jason Beck, a reporter for Tigers.com, did a great job covering that category. So I started to think about the scouting aspect of finding players in a very raw stage of their baseball development and to have the foresight to see what could be possible.
Scouting involves going to parks across the world, having the tools of the trade such as a clipboard, radar gun, and the ability to block out fans and focus. Having getting video for Tigers Minor League Report and forming my own “analysis”, I avoid bugging them. I used to think of scouts like the Albert Brooks character in the movie “The Scout” but as I went to ballgames and seeing the amount of work they have to do and be right about it, it’s one of the toughest jobs in all of baseball.
In the age of data-driven analysis with teams hiring Ivy League-educated people, the Detroit Tigers are slowly entering this new world. As old and cliche this statement to use in this context “At the end of the day”, it works here. You need to still deliver baseball talent. There a few international scouts that stand out among Detroit Tigers’ rather short time in the international scene compared to a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers, that can trace their roots back to signing Roberto Clemente…when they were still in Brooklyn. The Tigers have a great facility down in the Dominican Republic for the last decade and have done well with signings that are benefiting other teams.
Ramón Peña is a name you should know about. His track record is rather impressive. In addition to international players he signed while with Detroit, he also signed a few household names that Tigers fans are familiar with that came from as far as…Philadelphia. He started in Detroit in 1985 and was here until 2006. Let’s take a look at the Peña effect in Detroit with a focus on the following signings: Jose Lima, Bobby Higginson, Fernando Rodney, Ramon Santiago, and Omar Infante.
We as Detroit Tigers’ fans saw the launch of “Lima Time” elsewhere but his start came in Detroit with some memorable moments. In an article in the Athletic ($), Peña said this about Lima when he signed him.
“His talent was nothing out of this world when I first saw him,.” But this kid, he had so much confidence in himself, like no one that I ever signed. He was a true believer in himself. He always believed.”
A fascinating tidbit I found on Lima in his SABR bio. He threw a no-hitter in Toledo on August 18th, 1994. While Lima’s numbers in Detroit are not easy on the eyes (6.04 lifetime ERA in a Tigers’ uniform), you remember “Lima Time”, thanks to Peña taking a chance.
Higginson was drafted in the 12th round in the 1992 MLB Draft, one of the rare occasions that a later round draft pick worked out for Detroit. He produced a lifetime WAR of 23.1 in his time in Detroit on some very bad ballclubs.
Signed in the Randy Smith era in 1997 originally as a starter, of his 261 career saves, 70 came as a member of the Detroit Tigers with just two pitches. When Rodney became an American citizen in 2018, he thanked Pena for signing him.
“I’m very proud,” Rodney said. “It’s one more step in my career. I’m very happy. I say thank you to the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers, Ramon Pena, the guy who signed me. It feels great. It means a lot. I can bring all my family to the country and we can be together for a long time.”
Santiago is still part of the Tigers’ organization as a coach. Another product signed in the Randy Smith era in 1998, Santiago’s role as a solid utility player served Detroit well. While he may not have Hall of Fame numbers, he was a valuable part of Jim Leyland’s bench.
Signed in August of 1999, Infante would go on to play 15 seasons in the majors, 8 with Detroit. He was an All-Star in 2010 as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Infante had five seasons of 2.0 bWAR or better, two came while wearing the Olde English D.
All four of these players spent a good amount of time in Detroit. But there are more players Pena brought in that helped out Detroit by using later in trades. Juan Encarnacion was traded for Dmitri Young and two more of his signings, Frank Catalanotto and Francisco Cordero, were part of the Juan Gonzales trade. Also to boot, Jair Jurrjens, who did well in Atlanta for a bit.
Even current Tiger Willi Castro has Pena to thank. While Pena was the Director of Scouting in Latin American for Cleveland, he signed Castro. In fact, Pena was in attendance when Castro made his debut last season in August. Tigers killer Jose Ramirez, another Pena signee.
It’s an impressive body of work that Tigers fans may or may not know about. Pena helped put a foothold in the international market for Detroit and his presence is still being felt today.