Carlos Pena Returns to the Trop

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.



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Colin
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Colin
4 years 7 months ago

Well the Tigs lost probably their best replacement option. That stinks.

Ian
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Ian
4 years 7 months ago

Seconded.

Ronin
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Ronin
4 years 7 months ago

Come on, I am pretty sure Delmon Young will hit twice as many HR as Pena. And Inge is due for a bounce back season, as Rod Allen would say “You know you’re gonna get those numbers on the back of his baseball card”

Shaun Catron
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Shaun Catron
4 years 7 months ago

Inge is due for a bounce back season? Since when did Brandon Inge stop being terrible? Did I miss the memo.

Jon
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Jon
4 years 7 months ago

Delmon Young will hit twice as many HR as Pena??? Young has never hit more homeruns than Pena in any season, let alone twice as many.

JE
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JE
4 years 7 months ago

Who is projected to replace Pena in the lineup against tough LHPs?

Super Shredder
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Super Shredder
4 years 7 months ago

Not Luke Scott, I guess (.167 avg last year against lefties).

Robert Thacher
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Robert Thacher
4 years 7 months ago

I’m sure glad he didn’t go to the Yankees. Great move by the Rays.

Marty
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Marty
4 years 7 months ago

Another steal of a deal from Friedman.

Let’s see, coming off a pretty terrible season, Jim Hendry signs Pena for $10 million. Coming off a much stronger offensive year, he gets $7.25m from Friedman.

Ben
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Ben
4 years 7 months ago

Just to play devil’s advocate, he’s also a year older now, and another season removed from his 39 Home Run campaign, making it less likely he’ll rebound to those power numbers again, which make his poor average harder to stomach. Will his power be hurt by the Trop move?

Raymond
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Raymond
4 years 7 months ago

The Trop “move?” The Trop is his park. He’s the Trop’s all-time home runs leader, he just took a one year break to mash the NL. He’ll be fine. Silly question.

Oh and also just in case FanGraphs has forgotten, batting average doesn’t matter. At all. His OBP is phenomenal, as is his ISO. Big deal if he prefers walks to singles.

Marty
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Marty
4 years 7 months ago

Right, but his age is just about the only thing going against him. Every other facet of his game improved last year. He probably isn’t going to go out and hit 35+ HR again, but 25-30 seems to be a guarantee. He also got off to a very slow start last season. I’m not sure whether this holds any weight statistically, but it seems obvious that there are a lot fewer home runs hit in the cold month of April at Wrigley.

Mitchener
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Mitchener
4 years 7 months ago

Wrigley last year was pretty pitcher friendly. In April the weather robbed Pena of 5-6 home runs.

chuckb
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chuckb
4 years 7 months ago

@ Raymond — how is that a “silly question?”

Wrigley Field is much more friendly to right handed power hitters than Tropicana Field is so what he’s done in the past in TB — the fact that he’s “the Trop’s all-time home runs leader” — is pretty irrelevant. And his OBP is far from phenomenal. In fact, it hasn’t been phenomenal since 2007, the only year in his career in which it was phenomenal.

This was a good signing by the Rays but it’s doubtful that he’ll hit 28 homer again this year and it’s doubtful that his OBP will be phenomenal either.

Robbie G.
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Robbie G.
4 years 7 months ago

The Red Sox appear to be pretty far behind the Yankees and Rays at this point, do they not? Boston’s pitching isn’t great and I am not seeing any obvious candidates among the position players to have better 2012 seasons than they had this past season. And whatever in-house issues contributed to the team’s 2011 collapse have presumably not been addressed since this year’s roster looks awfully similar to last season’s roster. If Toronto’s young starting pitchers can make big strides this season then I can see Boston finishing closer to fourth place in that division than second place.

When was the last time the AL wild card went to a non-AL East team? Seems like forever. Could happen this season as the Rangers and Angels are both looking awfully good.

I’m skeptical about both Carlos Pena and Luke Scott but Tampa’s management is so damned good that I’m almost willing to just give it the benefit of the doubt at this point.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 7 months ago

There are two wild card teams this year though are there not? Angels/Rangers and Rays/Yankees? Or, and this is my dream, Rays/Jays Angels/Rangers. That is, if the Jays do something crazy like sign Fielder.

Afrogoose
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Afrogoose
4 years 7 months ago

Well, last year the Red Sox led the MLB with a team wOBA of .351. If they did nothing to “improve” that this year they would still be in a pretty strong position.

Cody
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Cody
4 years 7 months ago

I love that we got Carlos back. A great guy who is loved by Rays fans and he can play a little bit. :)

Al
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4 years 7 months ago

What Raymond says. Using BA makes it an automatic ignore, and is an embarrassment.

chuckb
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chuckb
4 years 7 months ago

The article didn’t “use BA”. In fact, it mentioned it only three times — when talking about Pena’s disappointing 2010 season, in giving the Rays triple slash lines against righties last year, and being dismissive of Pena’s low BA in 2011 b/c of his power.

What should be embarrassing is saying that this article is embarrassing without actually reading it.

Kevin
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Kevin
4 years 7 months ago

I think it’s about time someone gave Kotchman his due. He’s not a superstar by any stretch of the imagination, and he doesn’t wow you as a contact hitting firstbaseman, but he’s a good player. Throw out his putrid 2010 with Seattle, and he’s averaged about 2 WAR per year. League average performance at 3.5 mil ain’t half bad. A competing team Texas might have some use for him as a veteran backup.

I also want to make a point about BABIP.I understand that it’s not usually a repeatable skill, but I still think its a bit naive to chalk it all up to luck. For example, a guy might adjust his mechanics, leading to fewer popups. Alternatively, a speed demon might change his approach, stop trying to hit so many home runs, and significantly reduce his percentage of flyouts. For a player like Kotchman, a renewed dedication to scouting reports and pitcher’s tendencies might lead to more hard hit balls. I have no idea how often these types of things actually happen, but they do (think of Granderson’s turnaround in NY) and should be kept in mind when evaluating players’ long-term values.

My point is that just because Kotchman’s 2011 isn’t repeatable, it doesn’t mean it was completely due to good fortune. Give credit where credit is due. One way or another, Kotchman produced last year, and without him, the Rays wouldn’t have been in position for their stunning playoff appearance. Thoughts?

wat
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wat
4 years 7 months ago

No thoughts, just agreement.

Brian
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Brian
4 years 7 months ago

If he averages two WAR per year, and 2 WAR is average, wouldn’t that make him an average player, rather than a good player?

td32
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td32
4 years 7 months ago

While Kotchman had a nice overall slash line in 2011, it was a shockingly empty one. His line with runners in scoring position was 250/354/303!!! He was a slap hitter that showed little power, especially with men on base. Not what you are looking for out of a first baseman.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
4 years 7 months ago

Throw out his putrid 2010 with Seattle, and he’s averaged about 2 WAR per year.

Is there anyone that doesn’t look a lot better when you throw out their worst performance?

If we look at the last 4 years and throw out 2011, he’s been worth 0.7 WAR.

Selective endpoints and selective data = bad conclusions.

CK has had two seasons where he’s been above league average. In both seasons his BABIP was far higher than his career numbers.

I prefer to look at 2008 and 2009, 2 seasons where his BABIP was lin line with his career BABIP. He was worth 0.9 and 1.3 during those seasons.

Not surprisingly when his BABIP is was under his career rate, he’s a negative WAR player. When it’s well above his career rate, he’s better than league average.

But, “true talent” CK is about a 1 WAR player.

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