Thus far, the Tampa Bay Rays quest for offensive has led them to look outside of the organization in lieu of retaining incumbent starters from the 2011 squad. The team recently replaced designated hitter Johnny Damon with the more powerful – yet riskier – Luke Scott. Although the next piece does not have to necessarily be a first baseman, whoever it is will likely be replacing Casey Kotchman in the lineup. Kotchman’s departure is not a foregone conclusion; however, the team has let him stay on the open market this long, and he is now starting to draw interest from the Cleveland Indians.
Although the club is considering new sources of offensive production, one old name continues to pop up: Carlos Pena. The Rays’ all-time leader in home runs, Pena, spent the 2011 season with the Chicago Cubs after signing a one-year, $10 million contract. He hit .225/.357/.462 with 28 home runs for the Cubs, and has garnered interest from the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and others this winter. Meanwhile, Pena’s market has yet to full take shape with Prince Fielder still available. Scott Boras – the agent for both Pena and Fielder – is likely waiting for one to sign before dropping the other shoe.
Pena, 33, continues to post subpar batting averages (.225 in 2011) but his fantastic walk rate (16.7%) and power (58 extra-base hits) remains attractive. Some have expressed fear about his 2011 power being a byproduct of Wrigley Fields’ friendly confines; however, 16 of his 28 bombs came on the road and his .258 ISO away from Chicago (Isolated Power is slugging percentage minus batting average to measure raw power without the inclusion of singles) was the seventh highest for major leaguers (min. 300 road plate appearances).
The one true concern for Pena’s next employer is a diminished ability to handle left-handed pitching. Pena was never fully platoon neutral, but he has hit just .179/.306/.398 versus southpaws since 2009. His on-base abilities are not terrible versus lefties; however, if he is not on the bench with one on the mound, he should be stashed toward the bottom of the lineup.
Even though his best days on defense are behind him, Pena remains a capable defender at first base. As he advances in age, he may also benefit from a day or two a week as a designated hitter. With Luke Scott in the mix, there could be some job-sharing in order to save the wear-and-tear on both of their mid-30s bodies.
While Pena certainly will not command Fielder money, he will not necessarily come cheap either. That said, in this market market, it is unlikely he receives another $10 million payday. The Rays could offer him a lower-base, one-year deal with incentives and an option for 2013 at a greater salary. With a home in Orlando and no state income tax, a return trip to Florida may entice Pena to give Tampa Bay a bit of a hometown discount.