FORT MYERS, Fla. – I remember going to Tony Pena’s house when the Red Sox first signed him in the winter before the 1990 season and meeting his family. His son, Tony Pena Jr., looked like a player even when he was 9 years old playing catch in the backyard of their home in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
Pena Jr., made it to the majors as a shortstop for the Atlanta Braves and then the Kansas City Royals. He hit .267 one season with the Royals, but his offense went south after a hamate bone injury.
Now 29, he’s in Red Sox camp trying to make it as a relief pitcher as a non-roster invitee.
“It’s funny how things have turned out,” he said. “When I was young a lot of teams were looking at me as a pitcher and when I was 16 I could throw 89 miles per hour, which was pretty good for a kid my age, but I loved playing shortstop and I made it to the majors as a shortstop, so it was the right choice then. I thought I was a good defensive shortstop, but after I hurt my hamate bone it threw me off and I wasn’t able to hit the way they wanted me to. They told me to try pitching, and so far it’s been a good experience. I think the fact I used to pitch has helped my transition.”
Pena Jr., could really pick it at shortstop, and if he had his choice he’d still be a shortstop. He thinks his hitting would have gotten better, at least enough to remain a starting shortstop in the majors, but that’s beside the point now.
“The time I spent with the Royals pitching and then last season in the Giants organization told me that I can get people out,” he said.
He wound up pitching 76 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in the minors with San Francisco and even played a few games at shortstop and third. But he knows those days are over.
“I’m a pitcher now and that’s what I’m focussing on,” said Pena Jr. “I’m just going to try to get better and better and see where this goes. Obviously I’d love to be back in the majors.”
Pena was 2-0 with a 2.78 ERA in 22 games for the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League. He’s pitched multiple innings and in back-to-back games. His manager was his dad, Tony Pena, the bench coach for the New York Yankees, who has taught him some things to make the transition to pitcher easier.
“Dad always knew a lot about pitching having been a catcher,” said Pena Jr. “Having him around has really helped. My younger brother (Francisco) is also a catcher with the Mets organization so he’s been able to see things that I’m doing wrong and correcting them.”
Pena comes at you from different arm angles with a fastball and a slider. He’s currently developing a cutter.
How hard does he throw?
“I’ve topped out at 94, but I’m in the low 90s usually,” he said. “It’s more about location and setting up hitters. That’s what I’m trying to get better at.”
Other players have made the transition. Ron Mahay went from center field to lefty reliever and Rick Ankiel did the opposite – pitcher to outfielder.
“Players have done it so it’s not impossible,” Pena Jr. said. “I feel good about things right now. I just want to get better and prove I can do the job.”