March 27, 2006
On Sunday, the Detroit Tigers released first baseman Carlos Pena, putting the one-time can't-miss prospect onto the market just a few weeks short of his 28th birthday. I was surprised by the decision, not least because I've had something of a psychic investment in Pena since seeing him play in spring training four years ago and being very impressed with his glovework. I thought the A's had made a great move in acquiring him from the Rangers that January; he's turned out to be the best player in the six-man deal (only Gerald Laird may yet top him), which I guess is a lesson in getting too worked up over trades that include a bunch of young players.
Pena simply hasn't been a very good major leaguer. He has a career line of .243/.330/.459 in 1887 plate appearances across five seasons. His inability to make contact--492 strikeouts in 1652 at-bats, one every 3.4 ABs--and the middling power he generates when he does hit the ball have prevented him from putting up the kind of numbers you need from a first baseman. He's been remarkably consistent at a level just a bit below what you need to get from a first sacker: EQAs ranging from .270 to .286 in his four full seasons. His defense, at least according to Clay Davenport's system, has been underwhelming, below average in every season.
I think it's fair to say that when a player fails to meet expectations, the first thing people like me do--no, let me put that on me alone--the first thing I do is blame the player. Pena didn't develop the way he should have, so he's the disappointment. What's just as likely, perhaps more likely, is that I misread his performance record, I missed something that I should have seen which would have given me a more realistic view of his potential.
In Pena's case, I think I should have taken his contact issues more seriously. In three full seasons in the Rangers' system, Pena struck out 368 times in 1457 at-bats, just shy of once every four at-bats. That's less than his MLB rate, and while still fairly high for a top prospect whose power was good, it's still below the Ryan Howard/Prince Fielder level. Pena looked impressive because he was a complete player: good defensive reputation, 23-for-26 stealing bases in 2000 and 2001, points for being a good human being. At the plate, though, he was a 23-year-old with the skill set of a 31-year-old. When he got to the major leagues, he lost the requisite batting average points and his strikeout rate jumped, and he didn't have anything to compensate with. The deep counts he worked to draw 80 walks a year in the minors didn't materialize, and he spent seemingly his entire MLB career down 1-2.
I'm pretty sure it's Clay Davenport who's pointed out that a high strikeout rate, while not a major negative in evaluating the value of a player's performance, is a problem developmentally. Taking that point out for a walk, I wonder if mature stat lines in a prospect are actually a negative indicator, a sign that the player may already be as good as he's ever going to be. Pena was never an impressive physical specimen, a brute who was going to accidentally hit 40 homers, so the better pitching at the major-league level took enough off of his game to render him a below-average player. Rather than falling in love with his walks and his defense, I should have done a better job of reading his entire performance record. I don't see this as a stats vs. scouting error; this is a bad job of reading the stats.
Does this mean anything for a Jeremy Hermida, who while possessing some markers Pena didn't have, also has high walk and strikeout rates and has posted overall lines that look a bit like Brian Giles'? We've got Hermida as the game's #2 overall prospect, and I can't say I objected to that in any way. Am I making the same mistake here? Should Daric Barton be re-evaluated?
I'm meandering a bit, a function of too much travel and not enough sleep. My main point is that we need to take strikeout rate in young prospects seriously, especially when those prospects have good walk rates that "excuse" the strikeout rate (I often hand-wave it by talking about "deep counts"), mature stat lines and no overriding skill that will translate in the majors (Howard's power, Chris Young's speed and defense). My secondary point is that the failure of a prospect to meet expectations is cause to examine both the prospect and the expectations, not just one.
The release of Pena means that Chris Shelton--yet another hitter with old players' skills at 26--can rest easy, as he's the Tigers' first baseman. Dmitri Young will become the full-time DH, the least-dangerous solution for all involved, but a potentially unproductive one, as Young doesn't really have the bat to be a good DH.
Craig Monroe is the big winner, as he becomes the everyday left fielder, something else I see as a problem. Monroe has fair power, but little else: he's a .280 hitter with a subpar walk rate, average defense and no speed. He's a platoon player masquerading as a regular, being 100 points of slugging better against southpaws, while posting just a .266/.311/.427 line against righties since 2003. The Tigers are very right-handed overall, which is another reason to find a way to reduce Monroe's playing time in favor of a lefty bat. There's no one like that in their camp, though, not unless you want to stump for Nook Logan. In what has suddenly become a deep division, a left/right imbalance could be fatal to the Tigers' hopes of surprising people in 2006. That, as much as anything Pena's done, is why I think he had a place on this team. A Pena/Monroe platoon, with Young getting time in left, gave the Tigers a stronger lineup than what they currently have, and if the roster spot goes to Marcus Thames or Josh Phelps or someone like that, they're no better off.
I still think Pena can have a career. He's 28 years old and coming off of two season of .280+ EQAs, and he did close last year with a strong second half. In fact, having written this column, I expect he'll latch on with the Astros or something and hit .295/.380/.540 with 37 home runs, winning Comeback Player of the Year honors. And a Nobel Prize. And a People's Choice Award.
Saturday, I participated in my third Tout Wars auction, after receiving hundreds of e-mails suggesting possible AL sleepers. My suggestion that I be allowed to have them all was rejected, but I was pretty happy with the roster I assembled. I'll be on ESPNews today at 4 p.m., along with Sam Fantasyland" Walker, talking about the draft and how the two least-experienced guys in the room finished 1-2 in the league last year. (It rhymes with "truck.")
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