What’s So Great About Carlos Pena?

Carlos Pena remains in the sights of the Nationals, and I remain confused. I am not sure why the Nats are insistent on pursuing him, as I don’t think he’s that good of a player. But Rizzo and company seem to think just that, so let’s start by seeing what could lead them to believe that

The Good

He has power and can take a walk. That’s a decent combination enough. He’s had 5 seasons where he’s played a significant amount and managed an OPS over .800. In 2007, his first with the Rays, he hit .282/.411/.627. That 1.037 OPS ranked him third in the league, behind only ARod and Ortiz, and #1 among first baseman. 2008 was also a strong year, in which he hit .247/.377/.494, and his .871 OPS tied him for 12th among qualified first basemen. Still pretty impressive. And his OPS in 2009 was even higher at .893, ranking him 13th among qualified 1B.

Meanwhile, he’s got a great reputation as a fielder. The numbers bear out some evidence of a pretty decent run with the glove. His UZR/150 in 2007 was 3.2 and it was 7.0 in 2008. That’s above average fielding, ranked 7th among 1B in 2007 and in 2008.

The Bad

That’s about it for the good. In 2009 his OPS was .893 but he hit.227/.356/.537. That is still good enough if he keeps walking and hits with that power. I don’t mind the low average as long as he mashes and takes walks. Unfortunately, it got even lower in 2010. He hit .196/.325/.407 last season, for an OPS of .732. That ranked him 19th among qualified first basemen, with only four players behind him. For perspective, Ian Desmond’s OPS was .700 in his rookie year last year, and Adam Dunn’s was .892.

His last year was so bad not simply because of the low batting average. Sure, his AVG and OBP have dropped each of the last few years in a scary way:

2007:   .282/.411
2008:   .247/.377
2009:   .227/.356
2010:   .196/.325

But that isn’t what scares me the most. His ISO went from .247 in 2008 up to .310 in 2009 down all the way to .211 in 2010. That means if he were to get his average all the way up to .230 next season, he’d slug .440. Without an OBP of .360, he’d have an OPS under .800. And he hasn’t had an OBP of .360 in two seasons. Even if SOME power returns and SOME average returns, would he hit better than .230/.350/.450? I have serious doubts.

But we want good fielders, right? And he’s one of those, right? Wrong. At least not according to the fielding metrics. His last three seasons have been below average. Ready for another table? Here’s his UZR/150 over the last three seasons, with his rank among qualified 1Bs in the league in paranthesis:

2009: -6.1 (18th out of 20)
2010: -3.7 (13th out of 22)

Those numbers can fluctuate a bit, some good fielders end up low or with negative numbers in some years, so it must be taken with some grain of salt. But over his career his UZR/150 is -2.7. In other words, over the course of his career, he’s been a below average fielder. And the last two seasons were some of his worst ones. His range numbers were also low the last two years, and his overall career range is negative.

All of this makes me think that, yes Carlos may have had a bad year last season, and he may have some recovery left in him thanks to a strong track record. But two years of unimpressive stats after such a great age 29 and 30 season, makes me think that he is aging quickly. If the Nats sign him for next year, not only will they be signing a first baseman with an OPS of .811 over the last two seasons, hitting ability going down over the last 4, but they’ll be getting one who is going to be 33. That isn’t the age of everyone’s decline, but it is old enough that people do decline there, and that appears to be what’s going on with him.

As For the Signing

So maybe what’s so great about Pena will be his contract. Everyone else knows he stunk, too, so he might be had for a bargain. And if he does have some recovery, he can be serviceable. Therefore, if it’s for 1 year with a 1 year option, then they at least wouldn’t be tied to him. But if it’s a three year deal, I’d much rather them be tied to Adam Dunn for that long than Carlos Pena.

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