Carlos Pena, First Base Bargain?

By Tommy Rancel //

Despite being the Tampa Bay Rays all-time home run leader, Carlos Pena was the second-most important Rays player to sign with a new team at the winter meetings. Carl Crawford got the big bucks from the Boston Red Sox, and Pena is looking to make a big comeback with the Chicago Cubs in 2011.

A crown jewel in the Andrew Friedman collection, Pena went from first-round bust to MVP candidate in the span of one season. In his first year (2007) with the (Devil) Rays, the first baseman smashed 46 home runs and drove in 121 runs – both single-season franchise records. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to top those numbers in any of the next three seasons, but still managed an impressive OPS of .884 in his time with the Rays.

Pena became the franchise all-time home run leader this past season. His 144 home runs in a Rays uniform also rank as the sixth highest total in baseball since 2007.

For all the good done – on and off the field - during his time with the Rays, Pena ended his career with the Rays on a down note. Just three years removed from his breakout campaign, Los hit just .195/.325/.409 in 2010.

Aside from the massive number of strikeouts which are typical for a three outcome hitter (home runs, walks, and strikeouts), groundball outs were also a problem for Pena this past season. His 44.9% groundball rate was his highest total in any full-season.

The last thing you want from primary home run hitter is nearly half the balls he puts in play staying on the ground. His slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) on grounders was an abysmal .137/.137/.151. The .137 BA represents the second-lowest average on groundballs (min. 100 PA) in the majors, owing to Pena’s lack of speed, and teams shifting on him to prevent right-side grounders from scooting through the infield.

Though he may be on the downside of his career, Pena’s power is still a threat. Aside from the terrible slash line, the strikeouts, and high number of grounders, Pena still managed to hit 28 home runs last year. Also consider, he is moving from a below-average hitter’s park for left-handed batters to one of the friendlier parks for lefties. According to statcorner.com, Tropicana Field had a home run park factor of 89 for LHB (neutral is 100). Wrigley Field, on the other hand, had a park factor of 119. NL Central pitching is likely to be easier to handle than that seen in the AL East too.

After whiffing (literally) on his chance of a big payday this off-season, Pena gets another chance with this one-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs. With contract motivation, a ton of natural power, a home run friendly environment, and even reuniting with hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo, Pena could be poised for another 30-plus home run campaign.

For fantasy owners who don’t want to pay premium prices for a first baseman, Pena could be a good sleeper. At a stacked position, and coming of a down year, he could get lost in the shuffle in some leagues. While Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, and Joey Votto go early, you can focus on a weaker position (say, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) in the first few rounds and target Pena as a mid-to-late-round selection in mixed leagues.

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