Will Detroit Tigers Leave Themselves Too Thin At Catcher By Not Retaining Brayan Pena?

By Thom Tsang
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In a weird way, you could almost say that Brayan Pena won’t be retained by the Detroit Tigers because he hit too well.

Or at least he did against right-handers anyway. While the backup catcher’s overall .713 OPS, 0.2 fWAR 2013 isn’t exactly going to turn heads, the free agent managed to slug against righties just fine, posting a .325/.346/.455 triple-slash over 133 PA, a line that includes all four of his home runs in the past season.

So what’s the problem? Well, in a somewhat backwards kind of way, you could say that he didn’t give the team what they were looking for — a platoon mate with Alex Avila who could hit lefties.

I mean, never mind that Pena out-OPS’d the team’s no. 1 against pitch LHP and RHP this season, and that Avila was basically as injury-prone as ever; the team made sure they went with the guys they wanted ahead of the new managing regime, and despite Pena having been a capable replacement level backup in three of his last four seasons, he will be looking for third new MLB home in three years.

But given that Avila is still in need of a platoon in the worst way (.455 OPS, 36.4 strikeout rate over 88 PA vs. LHP in 2013) and that his health is far from guaranteed going forward, why would the Tigers go ahead and just discard a safety net this early in the season? As they’ll be looking to get right back into the mix of competing for the ultimate prize in baseball, wouldn’t that just be creating a hole that wasn’t necessarily there?

According to Jason Beck on MLB.com, the team will be content to stick with in-house options like prospects James Mccann and Bryan Holaday, who will both get a shot at the backup job in 2013. If you were going by past precedent, you could probably say that Holyday has the inside track here. After all, he did already have a couple of short stints, and put together a nifty .296/.367/.444 line over 33 PA while playing plus defense en route to a short 0.2 fWAR cup of tea in 2013.

Yes, he was worth the same amount of wins a Pena in just 16 games. Better yet, in 16 PA vs. lefties, he managed to put up an excellent .308/.400/.538 triple-slash — a .938 OPS to .690 vs. RHP based on the smallest of sample sizes.

Still, platoon problem solved, right? Well … not quite. While the numbers might be encouraging, Holaday’s minor league numbers (.684 OPS over 320 PA in triple-A) might be just one of a number of hints to suggest they only seem viable because they haven’t been given the chance to trend downwards yet.

He’s by no means a known quantity, and unlike Pena who held the fort in 2013 when asked, the Tigers would not want to have Holaday as the full-time backstop should something happen to Avila. Ditto Mccann, who showed promise in double-A in 2013 (.277/.328/.404, eight HRs over 486 PA) but projects to be a fringe hitter in the bigs.

Putting either of them behind Avila, even if he has a bounce-back year, represents a significant risk as neither Mccann or Holaday would be a good option to make the 71 appearances that Pena made last year.

That would mean the Tigers have to rely even more on Avila, who could end up going from a platoon role to more of a full-time gig; who knows, he might even end up playing 141 games with 551 PA like he did in his 2011 breakout season. That’s a whole lot to bank on for Detroit given their experience with the backstop in the last two seasons, and it could become a situation very quickly if either of the in-house options prove to be not so viable after all.

I mean, Avila has been essentially useless against lefties for two seasons now, so …

Thom is an MLB writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @BlueJaysRant, or add him to your network on Google

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