Pena excited to join Reds, team with Chapman
Cuban catcher always wanted to play for 'first-class organization' in Cincinnati
CINCINNATI -- As a free agent this winter, catcher Brayan Pena did all the usual due diligence he could before he finally committed to the Reds in November on a two-year contract.
That included getting inside information from someone Pena knew he could trust -- the Reds' closer, fellow Cuban Aroldis Chapman.
"Chapman had a lot to do with it," Pena said. "He gave me great advice about the organization. He told me that these are first-class fans that really love their team and they respect the players. He told me about the great coaching staff and great players. It's something that really drove me [here]. To be playing with a fellow countryman, he was straight-up with me. It gave me the heads-up about the organization."
Pena, a switch-hitting 32-year-old, was on the open market again after one season as a backup catcher for the Tigers. In 71 games, he batted .297 with a .315 on-base percentage, four home runs and 22 RBIs.
The deal that brought Pena to Cincinnati was two years for $2.275 million.
"I always wanted to be a Red," Pena said. "I know a few guys that play for the Reds and they always told me this was a first-class organization. So here we are."
And then there was the Chapman factor. The two share some common history even though Pena is older and hails from Havana, Cuba, which is over 450 miles from Chapman's hometown of Holguin.
As a teenager for Cuba's junior national team while playing in Venezuela, Pena successfully defected from his country. Chapman, 25, defected while playing in a tournament in the Netherlands in 2009.
Pena has been in the big leagues since 2005, playing for the Braves (2005-08) and Royals (2009-12) before 2013 was spent in Detroit. He became an American citizen about six years ago.
In the weeks before Chapman signed a six-year, $30.25 million free agent contract with the Reds, it was Pena who helped get him ready for showcases in Miami before interested Major League teams.
"I always knew about him because when I defected, he was very famous in Cuba because of how hard he threw," Pena said. "He pitched for Cuba in the WBC. When he arrived in this country, I was the one who worked out with him. I was doing bullpens for him. One of the opportunities he got was to sign with the Reds. He asked me. He was new. I told him, 'I never played for that organization but every time I heard something, it was very positive.'"
Coincidentally, in his first Spring Training game for the Reds in 2010, the first big league batter Chapman ever faced was Pena while he was with the Royals. Pena hit a sharply lined single to left field.
"It's the only time I've faced him," Pena said. "[Now] I just have to catch him."
Pena was signed by the Reds to back up Devin Mesoraco and be a bat off the bench. He already has met new manager Bryan Price and Mat Latos before a Reds Caravan trip earlier this month. He's known ace Johnny Cueto over the years in the league. Naturally, Pena is also looking forward to playing with Chapman.
"I will be able to play with a countryman," Pena said. "Everybody knows the situation with my country and the Cuban players and how hard it is for us to play in the big leagues. You have to leave everything behind -- your family, your friends, your land. Me being able to be with him is going to be great, but I'm looking forward to meeting all of the guys and to get to know the pitching staff."
That chance for Pena is right around the corner. Reds pitchers and catchers report Feb. 14.