Cubs' contract for Pena a risk worth taking
Despite paying $10 million, club benefits from length of deal
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The signing of Carlos Pena by the Chicago Cubs will be greeted in some quarters by variations on this theme: "They paid how much for a guy who hit .196 last season?"
This signing, however, is better than that. For instance: How many times in recent seasons has it been said that the Chicago Cubs really need a power-hitting left-handed batter?
I don't know the precise answer, either, but it's a very large number, probably short of the federal government's debt, but still a titanic total. But it's all over now. The Cubs signed a legitimate left-handed power hitter Wednesday.
This gentleman has other assets. Pena is a fine defensive first baseman. He won an American League Gold Glove Award in 2008. He is so good defensively that the Cubs will not notice a drop-off from the superior defensive play of their most recent long-standing first baseman, Derrek Lee.
Pena is also known as a top-shelf citizen, a fundamentally decent fellow and an excellent teammate. He is an indisputably positive presence in the clubhouse.
Now that we've established him as a combination of Lou Gehrig and Abraham Lincoln, there must be some mention made of the downside. It is clearly visible in this case. Pena hit .196 in 2010 for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Pena's career says he is better than that, although he does not hit for average, as his .241 lifetime mark clearly demonstrates. But over the past four seasons, he has averaged 36 home runs, last season's 28 being the low end of his long-ball production. Last season was the first time in the last four seasons that Pena had driven in fewer than 100 runs, as he finished with 84 RBIs.
The Cubs are clearly looking at those other three seasons, rather than 2010, as being the real Carlos Pena. Otherwise, they wouldn't be paying him $10 million for '11. They are also convinced that a large part of Pena's struggles last year stemmed from a case of plantar fascia in his right foot that bothered him for much of the season.
The one-year deal limits the Cubs' risk in case they're mistaken. Pena's batting average has dropped for three straight seasons, which is not a promising sign. But this is a golden opportunity for Pena to re-establish himself as a capable, reliable run producer before hitting the open market again. He's 32 -- not an age at which a bad season has to be regarded as the beginning of an irreversible decline.
Another factor on Pena's side of the argument is that he has performed in a setting where every game meant something. He has seen pressure and dealt successfully with it. The Rays reached the postseason in two of the past three seasons, and they went to the World Series in 2008. Pena did not have a productive Fall Classic that year, but his overall performance in the postseason has been fine -- 14 RBIs in 19 games, a .388 on-base percentage and a .522 slugging percentage.
So the Cubs like the total Pena package.
"What you have here is a high-character young man who will be on a mission to rectify some of the things that went south last year," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said.
Pena's agent, Scott Boras, had previously been seeking a multiyear deal for Pena. But between Pena's decline in production in 2010 and a market that was long on left-handed-hitting first basemen, the Cubs' one-year deal may be the best possible fit for Pena.
The Cubs, meanwhile, filled two needs with one individual -- a left-handed power hitter and an accomplished first baseman. Carlos Pena fits in both of these categories. Next, he has to play his way back into better form, making that .196 average look like a fluke, not part of a trend. The Cubs have had enough acquisitions go south. They need this one to play up to their best expectations and back to his pre-2010 level.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.