A surprise signing before the lockout in 2021, Manny Piña’s season with Atlanta was cut (very) short by injury. Indirectly, his injury could impact the Braves for years to come.
Catcher Manny Piña was signed by the Texas Rangers as an international free agent in 2004. Five years later, he was traded to the Royals in a swap of minor leaguers. After appearing in five games over two seasons with Kansas City, Piña signed with Seattle, only to have the Mariners trade him to the Tigers six months later. Detroit then sent him to the Brewers as the player-to-be-named-later to complete Milwaukee’s trade of Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers in December 2015.
Piña finally established himself in 2017 – at age 30 – as a platoon starter with the Brewers after seeing time in 33 games for the team in 2016. After parts of six seasons with Milwaukee, Pina became a free agent after the 2021 season.
Atlanta, somewhat surprisingly, jumped the market and signed the then-34-year-old backstop to a two-year contract with a player option for 2024 prior to the lockout last year.
What were the expectations?
Piña’s arrival in Atlanta raised a lot of eyebrows because the team had not only extended primary catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s contract, but had two highly regarded catchers who were nearly MLB-ready: William Contreras, and former ninth overall pick Shea Langeliers.
Piña fit what Atlanta has done behind the plate, going back to the Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki platoon, as a catcher with a decent-or-better defensive profile and with offensive upside based on his power-potential.
In 2021, Pina continued his strong defensive showing although his surface offensive numbers were the worst since he has become an established Major League player. However, when you look beyond his slash-line, he – as they said in the old days – hit into rotten luck.
In 2021, his BABIP was .162 – more than .100 lower than 2020 and even further below his prior seasons. Although there were a few troubling signs in his advanced numbers – notably a spike in soft contact and dip in hard contact – he appeared prone to return to at least his 2020 levels given how similar the majority of his other indicators were in-line with past seasons.
So yes, the fit for Piña made sense with the Braves except it seemed to make one – or both – of Atlanta’s catching prospects expendable. Overall, he was probably expected to produce around 1 WAR while managing a backup catcher’s duties, which is a very strong rate; after all, his career had him accumulate fWAR at a roughly 3-per-600 PAs pace to date.
2022 Season Results
Piña saw action in only five games – and 17 plate appearances – before going on the IL with wrist inflammation on April 28, 2022. That injury ended up ending his season, as he was shifted to the 60-day Injured List on June 1 and did not return to the active roster during the season.
He put up -0.1 fWAR in those five games, though it should be noted that he underhit his xwOBA by over .100 in doing so.
What went right? What went wrong?
Piña’s signing – and Freddie Freeman’s free agency drama – resolved one of the lingering questions that began as soon as Piña’s signing was announced, as Langeliers was one of the key pieces leaving Atlanta when the team traded for Oakland first baseman Matt Olson.
Piña’s injury also opened the door for the Braves to give Contreras extended playing time. Contreras proceeded to ride his offensive production (coupled with injuries, lack of production, and off-the-field issues of other players) to prominent roles both at catcher and designated hitter, culminating in Contreras joining d’Arnaud as a member of the National League All-Star team.
While Piña’s season went wrong for him, it ended up going right for the team with Contreras establishing himself as a key part of the organization’s future.
Beyond that, it’s hard to say much about Piña’s season. His results and inputs were not good in 17 PAs, but it was 17 PAs, after all. The Braves were possibly intrigued by the stark differences in his 2020 and 2021 — he was a terrifying small-sample offensive threat in 2020 and skewed his power/contact ratio towards the contact side in 2021, and perhaps the Braves wanted to see if he could replicate 2020 — but they never really got a chance to see what Piña would actually do offensively given the wrist issues that knocked him out for nearly the entire season.
That said, Piña did have some impact on a few games for the Braves. On April 16, he drew his third start, this time against the Padres in San Diego, and it went pretty well. He had a tiebreaking single in the fourth, a sacrifice fly to extend the lead to two runs in the sixth, and was hit by a pitch in the ninth, a nearly-perfect day if not for a second-inning flyout.
On the flip side, he cost the team fairly badly in his prior game, against the Nationals. He went 0-for-3 in a 3-1 loss, but the big killer was this strikeout with the tying runs on base in the fifth.
Low-key, Manny Piña is one of the least talked-about questions going into next season. Teams around the league always need quality catchers, of which Piña is one. Could Atlanta use him as trade bait to fill a hole elsewhere? Could he be part of a larger deal to bring back a more premium player?
Yes and yes.
However, it is just as likely that the team goes into 2023 with three starting-caliber catchers on the roster, using Contreras as a primary designated hitter while rotating all three players between catcher and DH. Alex Anthopoulos seemed to suggest something like this during a public statement at the Winter Meetings, but the winds could change at any time.
There’s also the option that, for the Braves to complete a blockbuster trade, they include Contreras as a key piece of that possible transaction, knowing they have d’Arnaud and Piña in place for 2023. Piña also has an option for 2024, providing another possible safety next for the Braves.
If Piña does spend next season with Atlanta, there’s little reason to think he won’t end up doing what he’s for most of his career: being a solid backup catcher that can rack up some value in small batches of PAs. He is coming off a wrist injury, though, which may dampen his offensive outlook somewhat, but he still seems fairly likely to put up 1 WAR or so in around 150 PAs, provided he can actually garner that much playing time.