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Cubs Tab Carlos Pena for First Base

For the last four seasons the Cubs’ biggest bats have been right handed. Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovany Soto had nary a left-handed complement. The Cubs tried to provide one with Kosuke Fukudome, but he hasn’t been a middle of the order producer. Now they’re giving it another shot by signing Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million contract.

Last season Pena’s numbers resembled those that he produced in his mid-20s. While that might sound good, for Pena it meant a low batting average, a middling OBP, and a decent amount of power. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he blossomed into a high-OPB, power-crazy first baseman. Yet each year he’s seen a decline in his average and OBP. It culminated in 2010 with a .196/.325/.407 line, which is more reminiscent of his 2003 season with the Tigers than any of his previous seasons with the Rays.

In an off-season filled with lucrative multi-year deals, Pena had to settle for just one season. It would appear, then, that he has an eye toward raising his value in hopes of landing a longer term contract next off-season, when he might be a more reasonable alternative to Prince Fielder. If he’s going to bounce back, he’ll need to change a few things that held him back in 2010. A change of scenery could help.

The most noticeable change in Pena’s numbers is a spike in his ground ball rate. Nearly 45 percent of his balls in play were hit on the ground, quite a jump from the 29 percent he hit in 2009 and his 36.9 percent career rate. His BABIP also took a dive in 2010, all the way down to .222 against a career average of .272. The difference might have been a blip, then– something that might even out next season?

Of the 2,483 pitches Pena has put into play during his career, 52 percent of them have gone to right field. Last year he pulled balls at about the same rate, but it was the types of balls in play that were the problem. Over 60 percent of the balls he pulled were on the ground, a nearly 10 percent increase from his career rate. Combined with some teams employing a defensive shift, it certainly can lead to an abnormally low BABIP. That’s clearly going to have to change if he’s going to succeed with the Cubs.

When a team signs a player to a $10 million contract, especially when he’s coming off a poor season, we can assume that they’ve broken him down and found something that they think they can fix. As outsiders we’re not privy to that type of information. The Cubs have made a significant gamble, and the number suggest it might not carry a high potential for payoff. But if Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo can fix whatever caused Pena to pull balls on the ground in 2010, they’ll finally have that power-hitting left-handed bat they’ve sought all these years.

Even if Pena produces something between what he did in 2009 and 2010, he could produce value somewhere close to his $10 million salary. In 2008, when he produced a .374 wOBA and a positive UZR, he was worth $18.1 million in the WAR-to-dollars conversion. Even when his UZR turned negative in 2009 (and he produced the same .374 wOBA), he was worth $12.6 million. With a wOBA in the .350 range and some quality defense at first base, Pena could again cross that $10 million mark. But, again, the Cubs are gambling that he’ll be closer to that .374 mark with good defense. While the downside is considerable — Pena was worth just over $4 million in 2010 — even a modest bounce back could mean the Cubs getting even value. A full offensive recovery could lead to considerable surplus value.

If Pena does recover, the Cubs could be just a few breaks away from contention in 2011. A healthy, powerful Pena, along with a recovered Ramirez, could help fuel the team’s offense. The pitching staff could also see some improvements in 2011. Each of the team’s five presumptive starters — Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva, Tom Gorzelanny, Randy Wells, and Ryan Dempster, had a FIP under 4.00 in 2010. These combined could lead the Cubs back into the picture for a relatively weak NL Central.