Signing of Pena Creates More Questions than Answers
Well, the Houston Astros made their big splash today. Carlos Pena—the Tampa Bay Rays castoff and partial storyline of “Moneyball”—was signed to a one year, $2.9 million deal to fill the team’s first-ever designated hitter spot. It’s a surprising signing for a team that, until now, has done very little in the off-season free agent market. Phil Humber, the Texas native and perfect game winner of 2012, was signed for $800k last month and that’s been about it. Pena, it should be noted, does have something going for him: He is a major league baseball player with a track record of hitting, but the question marks it creates for Houston are interesting.
For starters, how does Pena improve the team? The organization will likely tout Pena as a veteran with leadership qualities who hit 39 home runs in 2009. But what can Pena do in 2013? Does Carlos, a player with declining numbers who turns 35 in May of 2013, still have anything left in the tank? You could say that his 19 home runs last year will be greatly appreciated on an Astros team starved of offense and you’d be absolutely right. But Pena’s slash line last year of .197/.330/.354 is hardly pretty, nor are his strike-out numbers: 182, a career high. Combine Pena with Justin Maxwell, another big strikeout guy, in the middle of the lineup and the potential for wasted RBI opportunities becomes a very real issue. The Astros are hoping Pena can bounce back to his 2011 version and be a major offensive contributor, but even if he does, it creates another issue.
What now happens with Brett Wallace and Nate Freiman? Wallace, a former top prospect who has yet to play a full season in the majors, seemed like a lock to be the team’s starting first bagger, but now that is in question with Pena also in the mix. If we are to assume that Wallace is still given the keys at first, with Pena now the fulltime DH, what does that mean for Nate Freiman, the Astros’ rule 5 selection earlier in the month? Freiman is an intriguing candidate for the DH position due to his power potential (back to back seasons of 20+ home runs at High A and AA ball the past two seasons) plus the fact he only cost the team $50,000. If the Astros are truly rebuilding, shouldn’t they be giving guys like Wallace and Freiman every opportunity to succeed vs. a player at the twilight of his career, like Pena?
Lastly, is this the best use of a limited 2012 payroll? With a projected payroll of $30 million for next season, the Astros really have no margin for error for filling vacancies throughout a roster of questionable talent. Wouldn’t the $2.9 million be better spent on shoring up one of the worst rotations in baseball or perhaps upgrading a depleted bullpen? Who will be the team’s right fielder for 2013? Can the Astros, with only two catchers on their 40 man roster, rely on a gimpy Jason Castro or unproven Carlos Corporan for an entire season?
Only time will tell if the money spent on Pena will be money well spent, but he seems like a risky investment at this point in his career and someone who now creates a conundrum with regards to the current roster. The Astros have a plan for 2013, and we hope it will work out, but I am left scratching my head with this latest acquisition.