Cubs find right fit at first, ink power-laden Pena
Lefty-swinging slugger joins Chicago on one-year contract
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Carlos Pena's batting average may not be impressive, but the power numbers certainly are, as well as the left-handed hitter's ability to play Gold Glove-caliber first base. That's what sold the Cubs on the free agent, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal on Wednesday.
Pena, 32, is coming off a .196 season with the Rays. Not many hitters who hit below the Mendoza Line can get a new eight-figure deal or be courted by six teams offering multiyear contracts. Pena was.
"Even with the batting average where it was, you're looking at 28 home runs [in 2010], and look at the people who are signing long-term, multiyear contracts are hitting less [home runs] than that," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said Wednesday. "The game's about run production and runs scored, and obviously I don't think that [.196] number will happen again. If he hit .240 last year and 35 home runs, you wouldn't be looking at a one-year contract here.
"It's not a gamble, it's a real good fit," Hendry said. "We haven't had a lot of left-handed power. That's why I say the [Ryan Howards], the [Mark] Teixeiras, the Adrian Gonzalezs -- those people who put up power at that position either stay where they're at or sign huge lucrative long-term deals. Thirty six home runs a year for four years is huge."
The Cubs and Pena's agent, Scott Boras, have met at least once a day since the Winter Meetings began, and they made the deal official at a news conference at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel. Pena was pursued by the Rays, Nationals, Orioles, Mariners, Blue Jays and Braves.
"I was extremely flattered to see how much interest there was," said Pena, who lives in the Tampa area and attended the news conference. "I think the Cubs were the best fit for me."
He'll be paid $5 million this year, and $5 million after January 2012, so the salary will be spread over 13 months. Boras called it a "pillow contract," because it included a lot of comfort items, such as Pena being reunited with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. The two were together in Texas, which drafted Pena in the first round in 1998.
"I think [the deal is] good for both sides," Hendry said. "I look at his situation a lot like [Adrian] Beltre's a year ago, when he went to Boston. Carlos had a few nagging injuries and didn't hit for even the average he used to, so he found a club that was really a good fit for him.
"We like the shortness of [the deal], and at the same time it was a position we really needed, and he fits the requirements that were important," Hendry said.
Pena said he watched Cubs games on television as a kid and followed Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston and fellow Dominican George Bell. The Cubs new first baseman, however, has never played at Wrigley Field and apparently isn't a morning person.
"I'll make it work," he said, laughing, about the day games.
Wrigley Field appeals to him, too.
"It's a cathedral," Pena said. "Growing up in Boston and knowing how passionate the fans are, they've told me the Cubs fans are even more into it. I'm looking forward to that -- that's really, really cool."
Pena, 32, has averaged 36 homers the past four seasons, including a high of 46 in 2007 with the Rays and an American League-leading 39 in '09. He's also averaged 93 walks, 24 doubles and nearly 102 RBIs in that same time frame, compiling an .884 OPS.
He ranks fourth in home runs and sixth in RBIs over the past four years among all first basemen. Pena's average of one home run per 13.20 at-bats over that span leads all Major League first basemen, while his one RBI per 4.71 at-bats (trailing only Howard) and his one walk per 6.39 plate appearances each rank second among all Major League first basemen since the start of the 2007 campaign.
In 2010, Pena was limited to 144 games after battling plantar fascia in his right foot, including a stint on the 15-day disabled list in August. Despite his injury, he reached 28 home runs, 84 RBIs and 87 walks, one of only seven players in all of baseball to reach those totals and the only player to do so in fewer than 150 games played. The list includes Jose Bautista, Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto.
"It hurt," Pena said of his foot, which is now healed. "I'm past that now. I don't like making excuses for what happened. At the very least, I embrace those kind of obstacles and difficulties and actually give thanks for that. It makes you stronger.
"I've put that [year] behind me, accepted it, made peace with it and will make sure I grow and use it to my advantage. If anything, I've taken my punches. And in boxing terms, I have a tough chin, so I can take some punches. I'm still standing. I'm going to keep on going."
Pena did not undergo a procedure to correct the foot problem. Once the season ended, he felt better immediately. Maybe it was the turf at Tropicana Field?
"It's a non-issue," he said. "I look forward to putting that behind me."
Pena is exactly what the Cubs are looking for -- as long as you don't factor in that batting average -- and even though he loves the Tampa Bay area, he was encouraged by the new opportunity.
"I'm very grateful," Pena said of his deal. "That shows me how much the Cubs believe in me. It's awesome to see. That will give me more energy to honor that type of belief in me. I'm extremely excited. It is kind of cool how they can overlook some things because they were looking at the strengths, not at the weaknesses, and they believe in those strengths and my ability to get better."
An All-Star in 2009, Pena won a Gold Glove in '08 and a Silver Slugger Award in '07. He began his career with the Rangers but was traded to the Athletics in January 2002, and traded again that year to the Tigers, where he played from 2002-05. He has also played for the Red Sox (2006) and Rays (2007-10). He received $10.125 million last year from Tampa Bay.
He's also been released twice -- once in March 2006 by the Tigers and again in August of that year by the Yankees. He had a clause in his contract in '06 that allowed him to become a free agent if the Yankees didn't put him on the 25-man roster by Aug. 15. Pena actually lost out in his bid to make the Rays' roster in March 2007 to Greg Norton.
At the time, Pena told Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon that he'd be back and promised he was going to "make an impact." Hours later, Norton injured his knee and Pena was on the Opening Day roster. He did make an impact, hitting 46 homers and driving in 121 runs.
Pena also has a reputation as a great clubhouse guy. Hendry said he has already received several text messages from Cubs players commending the addition.
"When you struggle, the people with the highest character get themselves out of it, and that's what we've got here," Hendry said. "We've got a high-character young man who I believe will be on a mission to rectify some of the things that went south last year."
The Cubs are not only getting a middle-of-the-lineup hitter but also an elite fielding first baseman. They've been spoiled by having Gold Glove-winner Derrek Lee at first base for the past seven seasons. Lee was traded to the Braves in August.
Pena helped lead the Rays to a World Series appearance in 2008 after batting .247 with 24 doubles, 31 home runs, 102 RBIs, 96 walks and a .377 on-base percentage in 139 games. He made it three seasons in a row with at least 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and 24 doubles in '09, when he tied for the league lead in home runs with Teixeira despite playing in just 135 games, his fewest played in a season as a Ray.
He doesn't know too many of the Cubs players personally, although Pena and third baseman Aramis Ramirez played against each other in winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
"I've known [Ramirez] from when he was literally a little Cub," Pena said. "Now he's a big Cub. It's just cool to be part of this. I really look forward to it all."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.