Carlos Pena is well on his way to being baseball’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” man. Heading into his age-34 season, Pena has been with Texas, Oakland, Detroit, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Chicago, and he is likely to add a seventh organization to that list by the end of the offseason. For comparison, Matt Stairs had only worn five different big-league uniforms at the same age.
Pena’s next home remains a mystery, though; he continues to play second fiddle to Prince Fielder among free-agent first basemen. One of the league’s few consistent power threats, Pena has cranked at least 28 home runs in each of the last five seasons, but he has also struck out at least 142 times annually during that span.
The problem for Pena is that he’s merely a platoon player at this stage of his career, and even his plus glove at first cannot compensate for his shortcomings against left-handed pitching. Pena punished righties to the tune of a .255/.388/.504 triple-slash in 2011, but southpaws held him to a lowly .133/.260/.333 mark that only Adam Dunn might envy. Though a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $10 million carries relatively little risk, few teams are willing to commit two roster spots to a non-premium position.
The Indians could make sense, and beat writer Paul Hoynes reported that general manager Chris Antonetti has asked his owners to fit Pena into their budget. It’s an imperfect fit, with fellow lefties Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner already in the middle of manager Manny Acta’s batting order, but adding Pena would enable the Indians to limit catcher Carlos Santana’s innings in the squat. When the Tribe faces a tough southpaw, Santana could slide over to first, and start backup Lou Marson—a right-handed hitter with a respectable .285/.367/.395 line against lefties—behind the plate. In that scenario, Pena would give Acta a dangerous pinch-hitting option in the late innings.
With Luke Scott now in the fold, the Rays are less likely to bring Pena back, and they lack an obvious platoon partner. The Brewers could use Pena to supplant Fielder, but Doug Melvin may be more inclined to give Mat Gamel and Taylor Green a look, and both of the incumbents also bat left-handed. The Rangers—who originally drafted Pena with the 10th overall pick in 1998—could look at him if Fielder is off the market and Jon Daniels still has money to spend, but they may not view the former Northeastern University standout as a sufficient upgrade over Mitch Moreland to make the signing worthwhile. No other teams seem to have the combination of both a need and a fit.
Hence, Pena may be destined to become a member of the Tribe. Finding $10 million to spare won’t be easy, and Pena may have to compromise both on salary and playing time. But in a quiet market, that may be the best he can hope for.