There are a number of potholes that can litter the road to the Major Leagues for aspiring baseball players.
Slumps are never good. Neither are injuries. But Fabian Peña is facing a rather unusual obstacle as he plays his first full season of professional baseball. His road to playing time is currently being blocked not by a slump or injury, but instead by one Joey Bart.
So who is Joey Bart? Perhaps a little background is in order.
Bart was considered the top overall prospect in the 2018 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft when he was selected second overall out of Georgia Tech by the San Francisco Giants. He was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in 2018, was the recipient of the Johnny Bench Award as the top catcher in NCAA Division I, and he signed a contract worth more than $7 million last year — the largest contract ever given a position player in the draft.
So you now see what Peña, a former catcher at Manhattan College — himself named to three Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All-League teams as well as being named MAAC rookie of the year in his freshman season — is up against.
“This is the first time I’ve been in this position, being a backup,” said Peña, who was promoted to the Giants’ High-A team in San Jose in May. “I’ve always been the starting catcher wherever I’ve been.”
Peña is in a difficult spot, for sure. Long known as a solid two-way catcher, Peña not only flashed a solid glove defensively last season in the Arizona Rookie League, but he hit a robust .309 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 28 games.
After a brief stint in extended spring training to begin this season, Peña was rewarded with a promotion to San Jose. Ordinarily that would be cause for a raucous celebration.
But there was Bart, the Giants’ multi-million dollar investment, sitting in the same locker room when Peña found his way to San Jose.
“With him being the number one prospect in the organization, they have a schedule for him with the number of games he plays and the number of at bats they want him to get,” Peña said. “So it’s been tight with my playing time. When I first got here, it was one-to-one in games between me and him. Then it was two-to-one. But now he’s playing four games straight and then I get to play one.”
It’s a situation Peña has had to navigate through, but he knows he belongs among the organization’s best.
“I’ve definitely had to change my mindset,” Peña said. “It took me a little while at the beginning of the season, but now I understand the situation I’m in. I know that right now I’m playing behind Joey Bart, but I also know I’m here for a reason as well. I’m here because I deserve to be here and I made the big jump from Rookie League ball last year to High-A this year.”
Peña and Bart get along quite well despite an uncomfortable situation.
“There’s nothing bad between us,” Peña said. “He’s a catcher and I’m a catcher, but we both want what’s best for our team. We’re good teammates and we talk to each other, and there is a good vibe in the locker room. Our situation doesn’t keep us from hanging out with each other at all.”
It’s Peña’s first taste of adversity as a professional, but he’s using his current status as a learning experience.
“I’ve learned that I’ve got to stay focused, so that when my opportunity comes, I need to make it count,” Peña said. “I think this is going to help me down the road if I ever find myself in this position again.”
Peña is rooting for Bart to have a big year so he can move on in the Giants system, which would give Peña a solid shot at the starting job next season.
“Then I can show what I can do,” Peña said.
But even in a less-than-desirable situation, a day at the ballpark is still far better than any day in an office.
“It’s definitely been a challenging season, but I’m still enjoying it,” Peña said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about what it’s all about playing my first full season. The grind, the traveling and staying healthy. I’m happy that I got moved up to High-A in my first full season.
“So I’m really looking forward to what’s in my future. If I come back here next year, I’ll know what to expect, and I’ll be ready for it and have better results overall.”