December 10th, 2012

Tigers sign Brayan Pena to be backup catcher (updated)

You had a feeling the Tigers were going to try a veteran backup catcher capable of catching a fair number of games and holding his own, offensively and defensively. Detroit has found its guy, agreeing to terms with switch-hitter Brayan Pena on a one-year Major League contract.

UPDATE: Pena will make $875,000, the same salary he made with the Royals this past season.

Like Dane Sardinha years ago, Pena was once a catching prospect, having come up through the Braves system with a decent bat but little pop. He didn’t find a home in the big leagues until he landed in Kansas City, where he spent four years alternating between a platoon catcher and a backup. He batted .251 over 757 at-bats in his Royals tenure, hitting 12 home runs with 86 RBIs.

Team president/GM Dave Dombrowski’s comments in the press release announcing the deal strongly indicate the backup job is his.

“We are pleased to add an experienced catcher like Brayan Pena to our club,” Dombrowski said in the statement. “As a switch-hitter, he will serve as a solid complement to Alex Avila as our back-up catcher for the 2013 season.”

That would put Bryan Holaday back at Triple-A Toledo for another year of seasoning, making him the insurance option in case Avila or Pena get hurt.

The Tigers had a bind in finding a backup catcher. They weren’t going to come close to matching the two-year deal Gerald Laird received from the Braves, and they knew it far enough out that they said they probably wouldn’t be able to re-sign him. On a team with big time spending at so many other positions, backup catcher is one spot where they try to make up for it.

At the same time, the Tigers have to watch the wear and tear on starting catcher Alex Avila. He was pretty much an everyday catcher for the first half of the season before patellar tendintis forced the Tigers to temper his playing time. By the stretch run, Avila and Laird were just shy of a platoon situation, with Laird garnering most starts against left-handed pitchers.

Pena’s career numbers are a bit stronger against right-handers, but he can hold his own for average against lefties. One AL scout said Monday night to throw out this year’s numbers from Pena due to overuse after injuries put the Royals in a catching bind. In a perfect world, the scout said, Pena is a two-day-a-week catcher.

To make room for Pena on the 40-man roster, the Tigers designated Matt Hoffman’s contract for assignment on Monday, less than a year after Hoffman went to Spring Training with some promise as a lefty reliever in the making. He went 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA at Triple-A Toledo this season, allowing 55 hits over 46 1/3 innings with 16 walks and 32 strikeouts, then pitched in 13 games in the Arizona Fall League with mixed results. There was some buzz over the weekend that the Tigers were trying to trade Hoffman to open a roster spot.