Carlos Pena, who joined the 30-home run club for the first time of his career after blasting two homers in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' 7-4 series-clinching victory over the Oakland Athletics on Sunday afternoon, is a leading candidate to win the 2007 American League Comeback Player of the Year Award.
After failing to make the Opening Day roster following a disappointing spring training, Pena has been Tampa Bay's top run producer all year. Through Sunday, Pena is second in the American League – trailing only Alex Rodriguez, who is leading all of Major League Baseball – with 30 home runs, becoming the third player in Tampa Bay franchise history to achieve the feat. He is also leading the Devil Rays with 83 RBIs. The left-handed hitting journeyman, who has bounced around six organizations since being selected by the Texas Rangers in the first round, 10th overall, of the 1998 draft, is also batting a robust .279 with a team-best .579 slugging percentage. Perhaps more impressively, though, he currently sits among the AL leaders with a plus-.1000 OPS.
Over the past two seasons, the slugging first baseman struggled – .239 batting average, 19 home runs, including only one homer with Boston last year, and 47 RBIs in 299 at bats. Before consecutive down seasons, however, the Haverhill, MA native was known for his tremendous power potential – from his collegiate days when he was a star at Northeastern University and the Most Valuable Player of the Cape Cod Baseball League in 1997, to an outstanding season with the Detroit Tigers in 2004, when he hit a previous career-best 27 homers. But during that season, he also struck out 146 times, and during 2005 and 2006, inconsistency, high strikeout totals and the failure to hit for a high batting average contributed to his inability to lock up a secure spot on a 25-man roster.
Pena, who was acquired by the Tigers along with starting pitcher Jeremy Bonderman in the Jeff Weaver deal midway through the 2002 season, was released by the Tigers during spring training in 2006. He spent two seasons as an everyday player for Detroit, but lost his position for good when Chris Shelton, who was demoted to Triple-A after the Tigers traded for veteran Sean Casey at the trade deadline in 2006, emerged as the organization's first baseman of the future … or so they thought.
In his last full season in the major leagues – with Detroit in 2005 – Pena hit .235 with 18 homers, 44 RBIs and a .477 slugging percentage in only 260 at bats over 79 games. Soon after his release from Detroit, he was then picked up by the New York Yankees, who sent the aging infielder to play for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. In 105 games with the Clippers, he once again showcased his impressive power, belting 19 home runs and 66 RBIs in only 381 at-bats.
Shortly into his stint in the New York organization, Pena was picked up by his hometown Red Sox, who immediately shipped him to Triple-A Pawtucket. And soon after belting four more homers in the International League for the Baby Red Sox, he earned a September call-up to Boston. In a month-long audition at historic Fenway Park, Pena struggled – one homer, three RBIs – in 28 games, causing Boston to part ways with him this off season.
But just four homers away from a Tampa Bay single-season record, the minors now seem a thing of the past for Pena. People who believe that everything in life happens for a reason need to look no further than the latest chapter of the Carlos Pena story for proof (Also see, Rick Ankiel, or as painful as it might be for Tampa Bay fans, Josh Hamilton). Pena's non-roster invitation to spring training with the Devil Rays has led to one of the best comeback tales of the season – at least in the eyes, I hope, of people who live in Pinellas County. Unfortunately, Disney already played out the whole Devil Rays comeback story in the The Rookie. But perhaps there needs to be a sequel, starring Mr. Pena.
During the final week of March, he finished Grapefruit League play with a .255 batting average and four RBIs in 47 at bats. The end (of the beginning) of a once-promising baseball career seemed imminent. The 29-year-old, who along with Jorge Cantu, was one of the Devil Rays' final cuts during spring training, headed back to his home in Orlando to discuss what seemed to be a fading baseball future with his family (and agent, tragically for Andrew Friedman, it's Scott Boras).
But luckily for all parties involved – including Pena, the organization, possibly Disney (if only mainstream America knew who Pena was) and Tampa Bay fans – with the exception of Cantu and Triple-A Durham infielder Wes Bankston, a knee-injury forced expected starter Greg Norton to miss the first six weeks of the season. And, in the aftermath of Norton's injury, Pena received, perhaps the most important telephone call of his baseball career, earning an invitation back to historic(aly empty) Tropicana Field to fill the shoes of the numerous talented first basemen to don a Devil Rays' uniform before him – such as Huff, future Hall of Famer Fred McGriff, and yes, even Travis Lee, just playing. With an outstanding stage-five cling-on showing, Pena then locked up a permanent spot on the roster. The rest – a career high in dingers, a nomination as Tampa Bay's representative for the Hank Aaron Award, (soon enough) the club's Team MVP Award (Houston Astros infielder Ty Wigginton, no longer a Devil Ray, will hand down the green jacket)- is history. All in all, it was a storybook season.
Pena's statistics from 2004-2006:
Year TM G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS OBP SLG OPS AVG
2004 Det 142 481 89 116 22 4 27 82 70 146 7 1 .338 .472 .810 .241
2005 Det 79 260 37 61 9 0 18 44 31 95 0 1 .325 .477 .802 .235
2006 Bos 18 33 3 9 2 0 1 3 4 10 0 0 .351 .424 .775 .273
Pena's statistics this season (where his fantasy value has risen faster than Cameron Maybin's path to the major leagues):
Year TM G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS OBP SLG OPS AVG
2007 TB 115 378 69 102 27 0 28 83 70 106 1 0 .386 .563 .949 .279
If you look at his full stats, you will be surprised to see that Pena, who became the fifth non-roster invitee to reach the 30-homer plateau in baseball history, actually averages 30 home runs over a full 162-game season.
The Other Candidates
Eric Gagne- Boston Red Sox
Gagne, who has battled a plethora of injuries since winning the National League Cy Young Award during a record-setting season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003, got off to a fantastic start to the season with the Texas Rangers. As Texas' closer, the flame-throwing right-hander, who saved 111 games from 2002-2003, converted 16 of 17 save opportunities, compiled a 2-0 record and recorded a diminutive 2.16 earned run average.
In one of the biggest deals at the trade deadline – this side of Mark Teixiera – Gagne was shipped to the American League-leading Boston Red Sox. In 11 appearances with his new club, however, he's 1-1 with a 9.00 ERA and two blown saves, prompting hundreds of angry phone calls on the popular sports talk radio shows in Red Sox nation.
The Mariners, hanging tough in a competitive American League West Division, are holding off the surging New York Yankees in an exciting Wild Card race. Guillen is perhaps one of the biggest reason why. Through Sunday, the talented outfielder is batting around .300 with 19 homers and 81 RBIs. Not bad for a guy who hit only .216 during an injury-plagued season with the Washington Nationals in '06.
Guillen has been a monster for the Mariners down the stretch, arguably the most valuable player on that team. Right now, I cannot think of any legitimate reasons of why he shouldn't win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Other than my Pena bias, I got nothing.
Sammy Sosa- Texas Rangers.
Solely because of the lack of Rangers coverage over the last week, I am sticking with the Texas theme here.
After a lackluster stint with the Baltimore Orioles, Slammin' Sammy and all of his home runs appeared to be fading into the baseball shadows – hiding in the dark steroid cloud hanging over Major League Baseball, alongside Mark McGwire. But Sosa, who has 16 homers, including historic number 600, and 72 RBIs, among Texas' team leaders in both statistical categories, so far this season, was obligated to return to baseball for one reason: to become the fifth player in big-league history to hit 600 bombs. Mission accomplished.
In order to give more playing time to several of the top outfield prospects in the Texas organization, though, Sosa's role with the club was recently diminished. Plus, in case you hadn't heard, Texas recently set the city of Baltimore on fire with 30 runs in a one-sided slugfest with the Orioles, but Sosa – also leading the team with 102 strikeouts – was forced to watch the offensive barrage from the bench, making himself about the only Ranger – Rusty Greer included – who didn't record a hit, score a run, or make a Baltimore relief pitcher cry.