KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Brayan Pena wasn’t the most talented catcher to ever don a Royals uniform.
But Pena certainly was one of the more popular catchers among the fans, as well as a favorite inside the clubhouse.
“He always had a smile and so much positive energy,” former teammate and still close friend Bruce Chen said.
Pena was so positive, in fact, he never envisioned a baseball life beyond the Royals. He often told reporters he planned to “retire a Royal” and that he would gladly sign a 10-year contract with the Royals “anytime.”
Of course, neither of those scenarios worked out. The Royals outrighted Pena to the minor leagues last November, thus removing him from the 40-man roster. Pena chose free agency over a minor league deal.
“It was a sad day for me,” Pena said. “I loved Kansas City. I loved the fans. I loved my teammates. I really thought I’d be a Royal forever.
“But I understand the game is a business. It wasn’t up to me and it was out of my control.”
Pena still isn’t sure why the Royals outrighted him, but the move did ultimately save the Royals some money at the time, or so they thought. Pena made $875,000 last year and likely would have received an increase if he had re-signed with the big league club.
The Royals instead opted to claim Brett Hayes as the primary backup to Salvador Perez. Hayes was signed on a one-year, $600,000 deal.
But then George Kottaras became available on waivers and the Royals grabbed him, signing him to a one-year, $1 million deal. Kottaras beat out Hayes in spring training, and the Royals essentially didn’t save anything by cutting Pena loose.
“Those are the types of things you don’t know will happen at the time,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We had other moves to make back then and we needed to cut back in areas. But then George became available.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Brayan’s.”
And Pena knows that. The feeling is certainly mutual.
“The only thing I know for sure is that I’m very grateful to Dayton Moore,” Pena said. “I will always have a special place in my heart for him because he and the Braves signed me when I was 16 years old and they gave me a chance.
“And then when he got to the Royals he gave me another shot. I had some great years here in Kansas City that I will never forget. I made a lot of great friends.
“Not that many teams believed in me, but Dayton and the Royals did. That’s why I’m still in baseball today.”
Pena’s best season with the Royals came in 2009 when in a limited role he hit .273 with six homers and 18 RBIs. Pena’s numbers were not overly impressive here, but his play did catch the eye of division rival Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Within a day after Pena filed for free agency, the Tigers called.
“When my agent called me and told me the Tigers were interested,” Pena said, “I just said, ‘Let’s sign.’ This team has really embraced me. The guys made me feel welcome from the get-go. Everyone was so good to me the minute I got to Detroit.
“Jim Leyland has been just great. He said he saw me play all those years in Kansas City and he really appreciated my game and what I can do to contribute. That made me feel so good.”
Landing a job with a World Series contender at first didn’t seem real to Pena.
“To be in the same room and the same team with guys like Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, it’s a special feeling,” he said. “And to play for one of the greatest managers in the history of the game, that’s incredible. He respects you as a player and as a person. He treats everyone the same – very well.”
So far, Pena has done his part to contribute. In a backup role again, Pena has hit .289 with two homers and 11 RBIs.
And more important, Pena is playing on a first-place team.
But that doesn’t mean Pena doesn’t miss his old teammates. He still keeps in touch with several, most notably Chen. Pena will be Chen’s best man at Chen’s November wedding.
“I miss them very much,” Pena said. “I have a lot of respect for them and I hope they have a lot of respect for me. We’ve had a good relationship. We all kind of grew up together. It was fun watching Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas come up as kids and now they’ll be the faces of the franchise.
“They’re going to be good. But I’ve got a new life now.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.