Rays Reclamation Projects: Carlos Pena
Nobody gave Carlos Pena enough time. He was never the type of player that anyone particularly likes. He hits for power, sure, but he strikes out like crazy. His pure hit tool never developed and for a long time his plate discipline was lacking as well. Fine, he plays great defense, but when the power doesn’t come and come in earnest Carlos Pena is not a good player. Teams were too impatient to wait out the struggles that Pena consistently goes through. The Rays gave him a chance- without any catches, and without any deadlines. In return, they were the first team to see the Carlos Pena that never had the opportunity to come out for so many years.
Carlos Pena was born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic but moved to Haverhill, Massachusetts when he was 12 years old. Pena went undrafted out of Haverhill High School. He then attended Wright State University before transferring to Northeastern University. Finally big league teams noticed. And they realized that they had not just missed a solid player out of high school, but a player with real All-Star potential. In the first round of the 1998 MLB Draft, the Texas Rangers selected Pena 10th overall.
Pena’s first full pro season in 1999 was not exactly what the Rangers had hoped as he posted a .255/.365/.457 line at High-A Charlotte with just 18 home runs and 135 strikeouts compared to just 74 walks in 136 games. But Pena broke out in 2000 for Double-A Tulsa, walking 101 times compared t0 108 strikeouts and bringing out the power. He posted a .299/.414/.533 line with 36 doubles, 28 homers, and 105 RBI in 128 games, also swiping 12 bases without getting caught. After posting a .288/.408/.550 line at Triple-A Oklahoma with 38 doubles and 23 homers in 2001, Pena was in the big leagues in September. Pena played solidly in 22 games for the Rangers, posting a .258/.361/.500 line with 4 doubles, 3 homers, and 12 RBI. But the Rangers didn’t need him and weren’t sold on his ability to make contact. The Rangers had Rafael Palmeiro, who still had two more good years left, at first base, and with their first round pick in 2001 they selected Mark Teixeira 5th overall. For those reasons, the Rangers traded Pena to the A’s along with reliever Mike Venafro for 4 prospects (including Gerald Laird and Ryan Ludwick).
Carlos Pena seems like a great fit for the Rays with their Moneyball scheme thanks to his plate discipline and power, but after Pena posted just a .240/.340/.480 line at Triple-A and did nothing in the big leagues other than hit for power (.218/.305/.419 line with 7 homers in 40 games), the A’s jumped at the chance to trade Pena as part of a July 5th trade that would net them Ted Lilly and others. Pena went to Detroit in the deal. The rest of the season for the Tigers, Pena played pretty well, posting a .253/.321/.462 line with 12 doubles and 13 homers in 75 games. Pena actually finished 8th in the AL Rookie of the Year voting splitting his time between the A’s and Tigers with a .242/.316/.448 line with 17 doubles and 19 homers in 115 games.
In 2003, Pena was the Tigers’ starting first baseman and delivered more of the same results, posting a .248/.322/.440 line with 21 doubles, 6 triples, 18 homers, and 50 RBI in 131 games. Pena missed time with a calf strain. The next season for the Tigers, Pena had somewhat of a breakout year, posting just a .241/.338/.472 line, but with 22 doubles, 27 homers, 82 RBI, and 7 stolen bases in 8 tries in 142 games. But everything came apart in 2005. Pena posted just a .181/.307/.283 line with 3 home runs in April and May and that was enough for the Tigers to send Pena down despite his solid performance only the year before. Pena posted a .311/.424/.525 line in 71 Triple-A games before finally being recalled in August. Pena responded with a .285/.345/.662 line in the season’s final 38 games with 15 homers and 30 RBI. But that wasn’t enough to save his job. After a horrific spring training, the Tigers released Pena and went with Chris Shelton as their first baseman. Even though he gave them a nice year in 2004 and an outstanding finish in 2005, the Tigers were never sold on Pena. He was striking out a ton (26.5% of his plate appearances during his three years in Detroit), and he wasn’t drawing enough walks or hitting for big enough power to compensate.
Pena signed with the Yankees and was sent to their Triple-A affiliate in Columbus. With the Clippers, Pena played pretty well, posting a .260/.370/.454 line with 17 doubles, 19 homers, and 66 RBI in 105 games before exercising an out-clause in August. Pena signed with the Red Sox and hit .459 with 4 homers in just 11 games for their Triple-A affiliate before getting called up to the big leagues. Pena appeared in 18 games and had 37 plate appearances for the Red Sox, hitting .273 with 1 home run.
Following the season, Pena signed with the Devil Rays to be their first baseman. But then it was the same story as in Detroit. Pena was horrible to begin 2007 for the D-Rays, posting just a .213/.240/.268 line in April with 4 homers and 13 RBI. He struck out 16 times, 32.0% of his PA’s, while walking just twice. But unlike the Tigers, the Rays decided to stick with him. The Rays’ confidence in Pena was exactly what he needed. The rest of the season, Pena posted a .289/.426/.643 line with 42 homers and 108 RBI. He struck out 126 times, 22.4% of his plate appearances, but walked 101 times, an outstanding 18.0% clip. Just a little confidence was all Pena needed to break through. From 2001 to 2006 in the big leagues, Pena posted a 10.9% walk rate, good, but good enough given his strikeout rate. Since 2008, he has upped that to 15.9%. And his ISO has shot up from .263 to .216 as well. Why is that?
They say “You can’t walk your way off the island.” Pena went pro after being drafted, not as a signee from the Dominican. But he was put into a similar position. People don’t trust Carlos Pena-type players. They want first basemen who can hit .300, draw walks without striking out too much, and put up 35+ homer every single season. Even in his ridiculous 2007, Pena only hit .282 and his career average is now .238. He walks a lot but he strikes out a lot as well. His power can be scintillating, but not always on a consistent basis. That destroyed Pena when his job was always on the line. He could never be too comfortable. Here’s a player with a ton of talent who was traded twice and released twice. A slump for him could mean a pink slip. He got tentative. His plate discipline went into fluster as he tried to overcompensate. His was swinging at bad pitches and the result was less power than we know he’s capable of. But once the Rays showed him that they were fully behind him, his abilities came out.
Carlos Pena is no superstar. He has his limitations. But he’s been an important presence and a consistent contributor for the Rays. We see him sometimes and he looks like he’s never going to make contact again. But we know that not too long after, he’ll hit his stride again and become the player that Rays fan continue to love to see. The Rays gave Carlos Pena an opportunity to reestablish himself as a big league player. Carlos Pena helped give the Rays the opportunity to finally end their losing ways and become the contending team they are today. What a simple thing it took- trust, belief. And the results speak for themselves.