When Carlos Pena had his breakout season for Tampa Bay in 2007, it wasn’t as a member of the Rays. Pena was instead just another of the hapless Devil Rays, slogging along in soulless Tropicana Field. Friday, Carlos Pena signed a one-year, $7.25 million contract to return to Tampa Bay and Tropicana Field, where the Rays couldn’t possibly be a more different team than when he first arrived.
Pena was, of course, a member of the worst-to-first 2008 Rays (not Devil Rays, that’ll cost you). That club won 97 games, Tampa Bay’s first ever American League East title, Tampa Bay’s first ever playoff series, and Tampa Bay’s first American League Championship, all just a year after Pena and his .430 wOBA could only power the team to a 66-96 campaign. He was also there for 2010, the Rays’ second division championship, but that team’s success was almost despite him. Pena still provided his trademark power, slugging 28 home runs, but his strikeout problems and a sharp dip in BABIP led to just a .196 batting average and a .326 wOBA. Between the failures of 2010 and his contractual demands — he sought and eventually received eight figures on a one-year deal — Pena and the Rays diverged for the 2010 season.
Any national broadcast of a Rays game was certain to bring up the bevy of players the Rays’ lost through free agency. There was Carl Crawford, there was nearly the entire bullpen — including closer Rafael Soriano — and then there was Carlos Pena. Largely, the consensus was losing these players would set the Rays too far behind the Yankees and Red Sox to compete — that is, except for Pena, whose struggles (and, of course, .196 batting average) made his casting off understandable.
And then a funny thing happened. Crawford tanked in Boston, limping to a .304 wOBA, one of the key reasons the Rays were even within shouting distance of the playoffs come September. Soriano struggled with ineffectiveness and injuries as no-names (Joel Peralta) and mocked names (Kyle Farnsworth) kept the Rays bullpen as one of the league’s finest. Of all who flew from the Rays, it was Pena who thrived. The batting average didn’t return — and it may never will — but despite a .225 average Pena posted a .354 wOBA on the back of another 28 home run season. It only took the freakiest season of Casey Kotchman‘s life — a .351 wOBA needing a .335 BABIP for support — to keep Pena’s absence of first base out of sight and out of mind.
The Rays aren’t counting on another magical year of low line-drives and infield hits out of Kotchman. Instead, they’ll return to their bread-and-butter at first base in Pena — a low-risk signing who provides much-needed power and solid defense at first base. After relative struggles against right-handed pitching last season (.249/.317/.397), the Rays have amassed a trio of left-handed hitters who can offer some punch to go with their big righties in Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings as well as switch-hitter Ben Zobrist. Between Pena (career 133 wRC+ against righties), free-agent acquisition Luke Scott (122) and incumbent outfielder Matt Joyce (133), the Rays now have a slew of sluggers who can make right-handers sweat.
The Rays still have a tough battle to fight against the Yankees and Red Sox, but the Rays will enter the 2012 season with arguably their strongest roster ever. Carlos Pena has filled the first base role admirably for the Rays under Andrew Friedman and should be counted on to do so again after a resurgent season at the friendly confines in Chicago. It should be an exciting season in Tampa Bay — just ask Pena himself:
“Soooo excited …. !!!!!” Pena said in a text message to the Tampa Bay Times.