Royals catching saw a dramatic turnover following the 2009 season. John Buck had been with the club for six seasons, and Miguel Olivo had seen most of the action in ’09. The Buck/Olivo combo produced a nice power surge at the plate, bashing 32 home runs. Cy Young winner Zack Greinke heaped praise on Olivo’s work behind the plate, but neither catcher had the reputation as being strong defensively, and GM Dayton Moore opted to let both go to free agency without attempting to retain either.
Moore wanted a veteran presence behind the plate, and reportedly went after Ivan Rodriguez as his first choice. After Rodriguez signed with Washington, Moore inked 36-year-old Jason Kendall. It was clear to most observers that Kendall was a shell of the All-Star catcher he had been with Pittsburgh, and Moore was questioned for giving Kendall two years with the Royals for six million dollars. Meanwhile, Brayan Pena had shown promise at the plate in limited duty in 2009 (.273/.318/.442), and it was thought he would get some playing time. Instead, Kendall was allowed to catch virtually every game until his arm literally fell apart (muscles completely detached from bone in his shoulder). It didn’t seem to matter that Kendall was ineffective offensively, defensively, and in his handling of the pitching staff.
Trey Hillman had Kendall in the bottom half of the lineup until the beginning of June, when he moved him up to the two spot. Hillman was canned a few weeks later, but new manager Ned Yost never batted Kendall anywhere but second the rest of the way. Yost went so far as to call Kendall an ideal number two hitter. This was apparently due to Kendall’s “bat control,” with the idea he makes a lot of contact that would hopefully move runners over. Royals fans could be forgiven for having a hard time looking past Kendall’s .298 OBP and .266 SLG when hitting second. Kendall’s lack of power was epic: in 490 plate appearances, he hit a total of zero triples and home runs.
Brayan Pena was no better on the rare occasions he saw the field before Kendall’s injury. The fault may not have been entirely Pena’s though — rotting on the bench may have prevented him from finding his rhythm. Once Pena became a regular in September and October, he found his stroke and hit .309/.349/.432. In the 142nd game of the year, Pena got Royals catchers off the schneid with the first—and last—home run hit by a Royals catcher all year.
As for game-calling and defense, surely the gritty veteran was better than Pena, right? Well, the pitching staff had a 5.13 ERA with Kendall behind the plate and a 4.75 ERA when Pena was calling pitches. Base-runners loved to test Kendall’s arm: he led the AL in both stolen bases allowed and caught stealing. Kendall threw out 23% of would-be stealers, and Pena nabbed 28%. (The AL average was 21%.) Matt Klaassen’s involved catcher defense ratings put Kendall’s defense at -.8 runs below average, and Pena’s .4 runs above average.
When it comes to the intangibles that Kendall reputedly brings, it is next to impossible for a fan to gauge the existence or worth of those. But from where I sat on my couch or at Kauffman Stadium, Pena has one of the most infectious attitudes and smiles in the game, and seemed to get more excited than anybody when the Royals pulled off an exciting play or win. Kendall never had much to say on the bench or to the media as far as I could tell. Who knows, maybe behind closed doors Kendall turned into a guru and imparted valuable wisdom unto the Royals’ young players. Even if that was the case, there just did not seem to be any reason for him to play so much. (Only A.J. Pierzynski and Matt Wieters saw more action behind the plate in the AL than Kendall, even though he missed the last 31 games of the season.) Kendall could have mentored Brayan Pena just as well in a back-up role. The harsh reality is that the Royals were a much improved team after Kendall was out of the lineup.
Pena was joined in KC by Lucas May after Kendall’s move to the IR. May had just joined the organization after coming from the Dodgers in the Scott Podsednik deal at the trading deadline, and didn’t see enough big league action (12 games, 39 plate appearances) to draw any conclusions. Soon after May was acquired, Brad Mertel wrote for RoyalsProspects.com that “May projects as a future backup catcher at the big league level but if his power numbers and defense continue to improve he could force the Royals hand into giving him a starting spot.”
Kendall’s injury is expected to keep him on the shelf for the first six to eight weeks of the 2011 season, leaving Moore with a difficult decision between standing pat with a Pena/May combo or trying to make an off-season move to add a catcher from outside the organization. It doesn’t help that he has tied up $3.75 million in Kendall for next season. It seems Pena may have earned some playing time, but it would not be surprising if Moore adds a veteran backstop before the season starts.