KC Royals: Tony Pena Jr. could follow dad to KC dugout

(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) /

The son of an All-Star catcher and former KC Royals manager also played for the club. Now, he’s managing in KC’s system.

Tony Pena Jr. is, like his famous father, a baseball lifer. Born during Tony Pena Sr.’s second major league season, he saw much of his dad’s career from close range, was playing in the minors when Tony Sr. managed the KC Royals for two full seasons and parts of two others, and started his own big league career with the Braves and wound up with the Royals for three seasons while his dad coached with the Yankees.

Now, Tony Jr. is the new manager of the Burlington Royals, Kansas City’s Rookie Advanced affiliate in the Appalachian League. He skippered the club’s Arizona Rookie League team for the past two seasons.

Tony Sr. and Tony Jr. both played in the big leagues, but the father made much more of a splash than the son. A five-time All-Star, he played 17 seasons, won four Gold Gloves, threw out 35% of would-be base stealers, played in two World Series and was known for his excellent defense and on-field exuberance.

Tony Jr., on the other hand, started as a shortstop–he was the KC Royals’ regular shortstop in 2007 after coming over from Atlanta in a spring training trade–but switched to pitching in 2009 (he’d pitched an inning in 2008). Although he hit a serviceable .267 in ’07, he plummeted to .169 in ’08 and .098 in ’09, two campaigns in which he saw limited action. He pitched at three minor league levels in the KC system before becoming a free agent after the ’09 season.

Pena’s best season on the mound was 2011 when he went 9-6 with a 3.56 ERA for Boston’s Triple A Pawtucket team, but that campaign’s promise dwindled the following season when he was 1-9, 4.75 with the same club. He finished with a 5-8, 3.87 record with the White Sox’s Triple A affiliate in 2013, although he pitched briefly for two Mexican League teams in 2016 and ’17. The lone inning he pitched for the Royals in 2008 was his only big league pitching appearance.

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And what of Pena family managing? Tony Sr. retired after the 1997 season and went into coaching–he was Houston’s bench coach when the KC Royals hired him after firing Tony Muser during the 2002 season. Pena won the AL Manager of the Year Award in 2003 after leading the club to a 83-79 record, their first winning season since 1993 (and their last until 2013). The club lost 104 games in 2004 and Pena resigned after an 8-25 start in 2005. He then coached with the Yankees for several seasons.

The KC Royals gave Pena Jr. his first managing job–he skippered the organization’s Arizona Rookie club to a 22-30 record in 2018 and a turnaround 33-23 last season. He then spent part of September as a coach with the big league team and was named Burlington’s manager in the offseason.

Landing the Rookie Advanced Burlington job is a natural progression for Pena. At Advanced, he and his players will be working a level slightly above Rookie ball, the latter a tier typically stocked with brand new draftees (he managed top KC prospect Bobby Witt Jr., another major league legacy), unsigned first-year free agents and players deemed not quite ready for Advanced Rookie or A ball. He’ll likely be in charge of further developing players he managed in Arizona. And he clearly likes the teaching side of being a manager:

Whether Pena ever follows in his father’s steps as Kansas City’s manager remains to be seen (his name came up during the process that ended with Mike Matheny succeeding Ned Yost), but he’s in the pipeline. The Royals hired him as a rookie manager for the important Arizona job, brought him to KC to help with the major league team late last season, then promoted him to Burlington.

Pena was originally slated to serve as Omaha’s bench coach until Burlington’s season starts in June; now, with all things baseball so uncertain, both jobs wait until the game returns.

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Like his more famous dad, Tony Pena Jr. is making baseball his life. Someday, he may even manage the same team Tony Sr. did.