October 30th, 2013

Brayan Pena told he won’t be back with Tigers

When the Tigers were swept out of the World Series last year, Dave Dombrowski had the uncomfortable task of telling pending free agents in the clubhouse after Game 4 whether they would be re-signed or not. Between the Tigers’ abrupt exit from the ALCS this season, and Jim Leyland’s secret postgame farewell to players, that didn’t happen this time around. Now, apparently, the decisions are coming out. Brayan Pena, a pending free agent, appears to be the leadoff man in this one.

Pena’s agent, Paul Kinzer, confirmed that’s what he and Pena were told. Kinzer said they were told the Tigers are going in-house for their backup catcher. That means Bryan Holaday is in line to crack the big league roster and back up Alex Avila, with former top pick James McCann likely getting a look in Spring Training to show whether he could make the jump.

When asked to confirm, a Tigers spokesperson said that the agent reached out to the team and was informed that the Tigers will be going in a different direction.

Tigers officials saw Holaday as a Major League ready catcher defensively last offseason, but had trouble convincing a third catcher to sign a minor-league deal. Instead, they signed Pena to a one-year, $865,000 Major League deal and reaped the benefits this season.

Pena was a boost in the midst of Alex Avila’s first-half offensive abyss, essentially splitting time with Avila for most of May and June. He was the everyday catcher while Avila was on the disabled list in late June, then took over again in August when a foul tip off the mask landed Avila on the DL with a concussion.

Once Avila returned with renewed pop in his bat, however, Pena became sort of a forgotten man, despite batting .397 (25-for-63) in August. He started only one game over the final three weeks of the regular season while the Tigers made their playoff push. Avila’s hitting (.325, 25-for-77, 11 RBIs after return from DL), plus his comfort level with Detroit’s pitchers and recovery on defense, prompted Tigers officials to move him into more of an everyday role, which continued into the postseason.

For the season, Pena batted .297 (68-for-229) with 11 doubles, four home runs and 22 RBIs. He actually fared much better against right-handed pitchers than lefties, which defied the platoon he had with Avila but followed his career splits.

When the season ended a week and a half ago in Boston, Pena made it clear he badly wanted to return.

“I want to be back here,” he said. “Money’s not an issue. I feel like I want to be here. The fans, the way they treated me, it was unbelievable.

Moreover, Pena said he wanted to lose 25 pounds in the offseason so that he could come to Spring Training and prove he’s ready behind the plate.

The question now is whether Avila will be more of an everyday catcher from the outset next season with Holaday as his backup. Holaday’s .260 average and .684 OPS at Triple-A Toledo last season were the highest of his four-year professional career. He was a more aggressive hitter, but his strikeouts also picked up. That said, his promotion would set up a lefty-righty mix on the roster, and would also give the Tigers a strong defensive catcher as a more traditional backup.

McCann made it to the All-Star Futures Game last summer amidst a torrid start at the plate at Double-A Erie. He seemingly tailed off around midseason, then found a second wind in an outstanding August. He finished the season batting .277 with 30 doubles, eight home runs, 54 RBIs and a .731 OPS.