These 2 Tigers skippers are among the best in the Minors

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Brayan Peña was sitting at his desk in the manager’s office at High-A West Michigan’s LMCU Ballpark talking with a couple of reporters when he got a knock on his door. It was Tigers No. 29 prospect and then-Whitecaps catcher Josh Crouch, letting him know they were ready for the pregame meeting to go over the pitching game plan Crouch helped put together for that night’s game against a South Bend lineup that included Cubs top prospects Pete Crow-Armstrong and Brennan Davis.

Peña let Crouch know he’d be there in a minute. Then he smiled.

“That’s coaching,” he said. “He runs the meeting. He’s ready. That’s what you want. I don’t want to go get them. They come and get me. They’re ready to go. That is exactly what you want, because you want to create that leadership. You want to create that desire of helping people, to help my teammates. That is what makes me and all of us feel good. You feel like he got the message, and all of them, to be honest with you. That’s what we’re doing with our guys. It’s been good.”

A week earlier, Double-A Erie manager Gabe Alvarez was in his office at UPMC Park, talking about what it would mean to lead the SeaWolves to the Eastern League playoffs.

“To have these guys know what it takes to win, to be in a pennant race, that’s big, for guys to get used to winning, for guys to not just come to the ballpark and go through the motions,” Alvarez said. “I think it’s going to help them down the road. It’s going to help them when these guys get to the big leagues. Hopefully this experience helps the team and creates a winning atmosphere and ingrains in them that it’s a lot of fun to win. These guys are seeing that.”

All four Tigers full-season Minor League affiliates finished with winning records this season, the first time that has happened in modern franchise history. The work was particularly notable in Erie, where Alvarez led the SeaWolves to their first playoff series win in franchise history and within a game of their first-ever league title. The managerial work was just as big at West Michigan, where Peña took a Whitecaps roster that had massive turnover during the season and nearly led them into the Midwest League playoffs.

Baseball America recognized Alvarez and Peña as the best managerial prospects in their respective leagues. Tigers vice president of player development Ryan Garko recognized them as leaders in the culture of development and success that they’re trying to build. Four of the biggest success stories in the system this season — No. 3 prospect Wilmer Flores, No. 14 prospect Wenceel Perez, No. 16 prospect Parker Meadows and Crouch — came through both stops this year while taking big steps forward in their development and prospect standing.

“Both men are very, very good communicators, which is what we value a lot in this organization,” Garko said. “Those are two of the best. With both our American and our international players, they both have a really special ability to make connections with people.”

While Alvarez and Peña have come into their positions from different routes, they both bring the perspective of being former prospects. Peña was once a promising prospect in the Braves farm system who made his Major League debut in Atlanta before enjoying a 12-year Major League career that included a season with Detroit in 2013. He turned to managing shortly after he retired following the 2017 season.

Showing Crouch how to take ownership of a pitching staff and a gameplan was an example of his work passing down his playing experience to the next generation without overwhelming them.

“Pena has been a huge help,” Crouch said in August before his promotion. “He’s got the 12-year experience. He’s been through every situation that I’m getting ready to go through. I can go to him and ask him and he knows the answer. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything.

“He’s super hard on me, and I appreciate it. I feel like if there wasn’t constant pressure from the dugout and coaching staff, the high expectation, the performance wouldn’t be what it is. So kudos to them.”

Alvarez was a second-round pick in the 1995 MLB Draft out of USC who made his Major League debut with the Tigers in 1998. His big league career lasted just three seasons and 92 games, but he forged his coaching career in the college ranks at his alma mater as a hitting coach and recruiting coordinator.

“I was an assistant coach at Stanford when Gabe was an assistant at SC,” Garko said. “The thing with Gabe, being a college assistant and recruiting all the time, [was] just the work ethic and the ability to organize and run a program. He was doing so much. He ran the offense there. We never felt like the workload was going to be too much, so we felt comfortable challenging him and letting him run a higher-level club.”

Carpenter, whose rise to Detroit began this season in Erie, valued his experience.

“He connects with the players really well,” Carpenter said. “He played in the big leagues. He knows. He’s very smart, super-high baseball IQ, super passionate. I think what makes him distinct from everybody is his passion for winning, his passion for the games.”

What’s next for both managers will be interesting to follow. One of the goals the Tigers had when bringing in Garko was to develop not only players, but coaches and instructors. Both are solid examples.

“I love what I do,” Peña said. “I respect every single one of my bosses and our instructors, because at the end of the day it’s not about Brayan Peña. It’s about our players. It’s about the organization. I already had my time. Now is their time.”

One benefit of the SeaWolves’ playoff run was the chance for Alvarez to show some of his managerial mettle in big-game situations without as much of a set program from higher-ups.

“It’s been fun. The last couple weeks, we let him run it a little bit more, took the reins off a little bit, gave him a bullpen with less constraints,” Garko said. “We’ve had some good conversations, and it’s actually been fun for me after games to break it down with him, not just in terms of development, but did we make all the right decisions that night to win? I think you just try to put your players in good spots to succeed.”

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