Carlos Pena failed to maintain his 2007 pace. Then again, who possibly could? We are talking about a season that saw him hit to a .282/.411/.627 line with 46 home runs and 121 RBI. He wasn’t coming from nothing–he had been reasonably productive in his four years with the Detroit Tigers from 2002 to 2005–but he had spent most of 2006 in the minors and came to the Devil Rays on a minor league deal. For his efforts in 2007, the Rays paid him a grand total of $800,000. Yet everything came together that year, and his drop-off from there was minor enough that he remained a key contributor as the newly-renamed Tampa Bay Rays made their run to the World Series in 2008.
In his first stint with the Rays, Pena hit to a .238/.368/.516 line (135 OPS+) with an average of 24 doubles, 36 homers, and 102 RBI per season. Like basically every non-homegrown player that has ended up with the Rays, he had his flaws. He struck out like crazy, with his decision not to have a two-strike approach certainly playing a factor. His batting average declined each season as opposing pitchers learned to exploit that. However, he drew his walks, played great defense at first base, and most importantly, hit for a ton of power.
Three of the nine 30-homer seasons in Rays history have come from Pena, tied for the most in Rays history. Only four of those seasons have come from primary first basemen, with only Fred McGriff‘s 1999 season joining Pena’s efforts. Pena has four of the five 28-homer seasons from Rays first basemen as well. What is particularly crazy, though, is that Pena was the Rays’ starting first baseman for just five of the team’s (nearly) 18 seasons as a franchise yet accounts for 41.9% of the Rays’ 389 home runs from primary first basemen.
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Casey Kotchman delivered a breakout season in 2011 while James Loney pulled the same trick in 2013. Loney was also solid in 2014 and has been decent enough this season. Yet no matter what the Rays have done, they have only managed to find players with part of Pena’s skill-set. Kotchman and Loney had the defense and the on-base skills, but they simply never had Pena’s power. We can talk about the merits of batting average versus slugging percentage, but you don’t need to be a sabermetrics guy to appreciate that Pena’s power in his first three years easily outweighed the fact that we wasn’t hitting for a high average.
Pena wasn’t great for all that long, but the Rays have been unable to find a single player who could turn in a reasonable facsimile of his production for even one year. Even on the most basic level, home runs, not a single free agent that the Rays have signed has hit 20 homers since Eric Hinske in 2008. On the other hand, we can’t be too surprised about that given the Rays’ financial constraints. If they want a legitimate middle-of-the-order power hitter, they better develop him themselves or acquire him in a trade.
The Rays are hoping that one of Richie Shaffer, Casey Gillaspie, and Jake Bauers has a longer run of success than Pena had in the major leagues. Maybe one of them can do it all, hitting for average in addition to providing power, on-base skills, and great defense at first base. At the end of the day, though, “the next Carlos Pena” is a lofty enough goal by itself. Who knows how long it will be until the Rays receive even one more Pena-esque season from a first baseman, let alone more than that. Let’s appreciate Pena after he announced his retirement in a Rays uniform today.