CHICAGO | This what Royals catcher Brayan Peña wanted all his life, right? The chance to prove he can be a regular in the big leagues.
This is why he defected 10 years ago from Cuba; why he labored cheerfully through the minors for eight seasons and the last two years as a seldom-used backup.
All for a chance such as that now offered by the Royals in the wake of a season-ending injury to veteran Jason Kendall; the chance, finally, for Peña to prove himself, at age 28, on the big stage.
You might think so, but“I don’t see it that way,” Peña insisted. “Every time I see my name in the lineup is still like a blessing. I know this is Jason’s team. This is just an opportunity for me to help my team. That’s really the way I see it.”
Peña pauses because, frankly, even he knows that’s hard to swallow.
“I’m not saying that to be nice or anything,” he added. “Everybody wants to play. Everybody wants to be that guy. But I understand my situation, and I just know that I’m very blessed. I’m very thankful to the skipper for every time I see my name in the lineup.”
Keep Peña talking — not exactly a chore — and it becomes clear that what drives him these days is a sincere desire not to let others down.
He cites an obligation to manager Ned Yost for displaying trust and commitment and to Kendall for challenging him to maintain or upgrade the position. But also to his teammates as a whole and the organization in general.
“Nobody ever gave me this shot that Ned is giving me,” Peña said. “I’m trying to make the most out of it. I know I have to improve my game a lot. I always push myself to be the best I can be.”
Peña, a switch-hitter, is batting .400 — at 10 for 25 — with five walks in eight games since Kendall was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff that required season-ending surgery. Peña now shares the position with rookie Lucas May but appears ticketed for a majority of the playing time in the season’s closing weeks.
“It’s a chance for him to show us exactly what he’s capable of doing,” Yost said. “He’s still got some work to do behind the plate, but he’s a kid who works hard. He’s really focusing on doing the best that he can with this opportunity.”
Peña’s bat has never been an issue. He displayed reliable doubles power in his minor-league career while batting .303 with a .403 on-base percentage. Last season, he batted .273 for the Royals with a .442 OBP in 183 plate appearances.
The questions always centered on his defensive skills — an area he worked hard this season to address in early work and pregame drills with bench coach John Gibbons, who oversees the club’s catchers.
“When I first met him last year in spring training,” Gibbons said, “he was throwing flares (to second base). But he works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen and, now, he’s got good arm strength.
“He’s got good carry on the ball. He’s got a nice little release. He’s thrown out some pretty good base-runners. You watch him; he gets rid of the ball pretty darn good.”
Peña also points to a recent torch-passing conversation with Kendall as a major motivating factor. Recovery time on Kendall’s surgery is generally pegged at eight-to-12 months, which makes him unlikely to be ready when next season starts.
“Before he had surgery,” Peña said, “he told me that I can’t let him down, that I have to keep preparing myself and make our club as strong as it can be. He wants me to work hard to learn our pitching staff and have it so it’s no different from when he’s catching them.
“Those words, coming from a guy like that, make you want to work your hardest to improve your game.”
It might be paying off. Zack Greinke, unprompted, complimented Peña’s work after Wednesday’s 4-3 loss at Minnesota.
“That was the best Brayan has caught me all year,” Greinke said. “He caught a real good game. He was real comfortable back there. That was really nice to see.”
Fact is, Peña must show improvement — the capacity for improvement, anyway — over the next three-plus weeks because alternatives exist within the organization.
The Royals also face a decision on May, who is out of options, as they head into the offseason. He is a converted shortstop whose defense remains a work in progress, but club officials see potential because of his athleticism.
Manny Piña, 23, spent this season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas and possesses catch-and-throw skills that Yost likens to a “young Yadier Molina.” Piña is already on the 40-man roster and could get a late promotion once the Naturals conclude their postseason run.
Piña’s bat isn’t likely to be big-league ready next season — he batted .259 this season in 74 games — but many club officials believe his defense is good enough to offset any offensive shortcomings.
For now, though, the spotlight belongs to Peña.
“I never look at anyone as a backup,” Yost said. “He’s a very adequate backup catcher, but I want to push him to be a starter. So I look at him a little harder in terms of what he does back there to try to help him become an everyday player.
“There are still areas of his game that he needs to iron out.”
Peña admits the increased duty is sharpening his concentration.
“Now, my team expects a little bit more from me,” he said. “And I can’t let my team down. And I can’t let Ned down after he’s giving me this opportunity.
“Nobody ever gave this kind of opportunity to me before.”