PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Brayan Pena was set to go in 2020 to be the manager of the West Michigan Whitecaps.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic brought most sports to a halt. For Minor League Baseball, it meant a full cancellation of the season.
Fast forward to 2021, things are starting to feel normal again and baseball is being played at LMCU Ballpark in front of crowds.
The Whitecaps currently sit at 27-32, settling in at fifth place in the High-A Central Division, seven games out of the first place Dayton Dragons.
Tonight’s first pitch will begin the 60th game that Pena has managed for the Whitecaps.
The team has seen plenty of ups and downs. From the end of May into the first four days of June, West Michigan had won nine of 10 games which propelled them into first place of the division.
Just a month later, the Whitecaps have fallen back to five games below .500.
It wasn’t coincidental that the promotions of top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Dillon Dingler put a hole in the middle of the Whitecaps lineup and offensive production.
But for Pena, that has always been the goal: develop and advance players in their career while in the minor leagues.
Now, he’s learning how to keep that going.
“This is what the minor leagues is all about,” Pena said. “You want our guys to continue to grow. At the end of the day, we are here to help win the World Series in Detroit. That’s our goal.”
While that is the path the Whitecaps have sent Dingler and Torkelson on to Erie, where the two have continued to crush the baseball at the dish, those slots need to be filled in West Michigan.
“It’s all about the next man up while you’re here,” Pena said. “It’s a chance for young players to showcase what they can do. They get playing time and we are excited about a lot of the young players that we do have. We’re working with guys who for the most part missed a full year and are looking to get more repetition. With that being said, we are very pleased with the work being done here.”
One player Pena mentioned who has had to step up is catcher Cooper Johnson, who is struggling at the plate (batting .176) but has been “unbelievable” behind the plate according to Pena and is electric with his arm and catching. A second player he mentioned is Brendan White, who debuted with the Whitecaps this season. The right-handed pitcher currently holds a 2-2 record with a 3.43 ERA over 44.2 innings pitched.
One of the main players who has been producing runs and showing a different gear with his bat has been Bryant Packard. He currently has six home runs on the season, which has doubled the total he had for his career coming into the season.
Packard, who was also coached by Pena with the Connecticut Tigers for about a week in 2019 due to the shortened season, said he loves to play for his manager.
“Brayan is the man,” Packard said. “When you get drafted you think people down here just think about the major leagues, that’s not him. He wants to win while getting the most out of this team and I think that’s what he has done. We gone on losing and winning streaks but (Pena) always puts his best foot forward and shows up with energy and intent.”
While there still is the everyday stress of this being a job, Pena loves the spot he is in right now. Working with the current and incoming 2021 MLB Draft prospects is something he doesn’t take for granted.
And he looks at them as more than just another player.
“While these are all great young men I get to work with, I think of all of them as my kids,” Pena said. “They all have been gifted with a special talent, I’m just here to get them where they need to be on their journey to the big leagues. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s all about the end goal of winning a World Series in Detroit.”