Are KC Royals grooming Tony Pena Jr. to manage?

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

The KC Royals added a legacy to their coaching staff and may be prepping him for a bigger job.

If he has designs on the major league managing job his father once had, Tony Pena Jr. just took a big step in the right direction. The KC Royals announced their 2021 coaching staff Friday and Pena Jr. is among the eight baseball professionals who’ll assist second-year manager Mike Matheny this coming season.

Pena Jr. is, of course, the son of former Kansas City manager and five-time big league All-Star, four-time Gold Glover Tony Pena Sr. Tony Sr. played 18 seasons in the majors before beginning a coaching and managing career that took him first to the minor leagues and the Dominican Republic, then to the Royals and Yankees.

Kansas City hired the elder Pena to replace interim manager John Mizerock early in the 2002 season; Mizerock was holding the fort down after the club fired Tony Muser after the campaign’s 23rd game. Pena finished the season with a 49-77 record.

He turned the team around in 2003—the Royals went 83-79 to finish third in the American League Central and Pena Sr. was the league’s Manager of the Year. But his and the club’s fortunes changed for the worse in 2004 when Kansas City lost a then-franchise record 104 games and finished in the division cellar.

Pena Sr. resigned in mid-May after a terrible 8-25 start to the ’05 campaign, then went on to serve as first base coach, and later bench coach, for the Yankees.

Tony Jr. took a distinctly different baseball path. Unlike his father, he never starred in The Show; his never-gold glove and .228/.248/.300 slash in four major league seasons (three with the Royals and one with the Braves) spelled an end to his infield career, and a switch to pitching didn’t pan out. He signed free agent deals with San Francisco, Boston and the White Sox after his final KC Royals season, but never made it back to the majors.

The Royals, though, saw something else in Pena Jr. they liked and gave him their Arizona-based Rookie team to manage in 2018. The team finished eight games under .500 that year, but Tony Jr. led it to a far better 33-23 mark in 2019. Suitably impressed, the big league put him on Ned Yost’s staff in September for a taste of big league coaching.

The KC Royals confirmed their interest in Pena Jr.’s dugout acumen by promoting him to Burlington for the 2020 campaign and appointing him bench coach at Triple A Omaha until Burlington’s shorter season was scheduled to begin. Unfortunately, COVID-19 wiped out the entire minor league slate, so he didn’t work at Omaha or Burlington.

Then came the mid-fall end of Burlington’s affiliation with the Royals that left Pena Jr. without a managing job. But Kansas City, sending yet another signal of its confidence in him, named Pena Jr. to the major league staff. His specific coaching responsibilities aren’t clear, but he’ll likely work with the infielders.

The KC Royals like Tony Jr. He wouldn’t be headed to Kansas City unless they did. At age 39, he has plenty of time to sharpen his coaching skills and to learn from an established, successful manager like Matheny and a well-respected bench coach (and frequent managerial candidate) like Pedro Grifol. Don’t be shocked if his name pops up prominently the next time the franchise needs a field manager—the Royals’ moves with him strongly suggest they’re readying him for the top. And he’s on track to emerge soon as a candidate for other jobs.

Pena Jr.’s promotion wasn’t the only important coaching development announced Friday. As anticipated, long-time coach Rusty Kuntz will return to his familiar first base box after opting out last season; presumably, he’ll also resume his expert work with the Kansas City outfielders.

Not surprisingly, Grifol and Cal Eldred return, Grifol as bench coach and Eldred as pitching coach. Hitting coach Terry Bradshaw, third base coach Vance Wilson, bullpen coach Larry Carter and coach John Mabry will also be back.

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The Royals added Tony Pena Jr. to their coaching staff Friday. The son of former major league star and Kansas City manager Tony Pena Sr. appears to be on a career path to managing.