Should The Rays Trade Carlos Pena?

One of the larger topics this offseason has centered on what to do with Carl Crawford. Now that the Rays have picked up his $10 million dollar option they are left with a couple scenarios:  trading him now, trading him later, signing him to an extension, or let him walk and take the compensatory pick(s). While CC is and will remain the hot topic for the unforeseeable future, I have been wondering about the Rays other $10 million dollar man, Carlos Pena.

Honestly, I try and to not play favorites, but how can you not when it comes to Carlos Pena? Nevertheless, I've come to the realization that maybe in addition to Crawford, it's time to explore the possibility of a Pena move. Of course, one isn't really reliant on the other and both, one, or none of them could be traded anyway.

Obligatory disclaimer: This is merely speculation. The Rays haven't said they are actively shopping Pena.

First, let's look at the most important fact; Pena will make $10.25 million dollars in 2010. This makes him the team's highest paid player. However, in terms of WAR, he was narrowly the seventh best Rays player this past season. If you want to make the argument that his season was cut short due to injury, Pena was not cracking the top five for the Rays regardless of a full season. This doesn't mean he wasn't valuable; a 2.6 WAR is worth $11.9 million dollars and Pena made $8 million, but the Rays highest paid player shouldn't be their fifth, sixth or seventh best player on the team.

Pena's three-year WAR average has him at a 4.2. If he is able to produce that at $10 million dollars then that is a bargain, but that average is also heavily skewed by his 6.2 WAR in the 2007 season. After posting a 3.8 in 2008, Pena was again down to 2.6 in 2009.

Offensively, there is little doubt that Pena can, and will, still mash. The player friendly projection of Bill James has him slugging .498 in 2010 and I think that may be a bit on the low side. It's the other portions of Pena's game that had me worried. While the Power remains, his patience at the plate and his sharp batting eye have wandered slightly the past few seasons.

After posting a lovely 17.4% walk rate in 2007, Pena's BB% has declined in the past few seasons. Coinciding with the decline in walks is an increase in strikeouts, and not surprisingly an increase in swings on pitches out of the zone.

 

BB%

K%

O-Swing%

2007

17.4

29

19.8

2008

16.4

33.9

20.8

2009

15.6

34.6

23.6

 

Walking 15% of the time is still pretty good, but the K's are at an all time high. Even though we know this is part of his game, it's still not a trend you want to see.

Defensively, Pena had a pretty rough season finishing with a UZR of -4.6. However, his three year average is ever so slightly above average at 0.4. Odds are he will be right at average or slightly below in the field next year, unless 2009 was just the beginning of a defensive avalanche.

Beyond the high salary and some production concerns, there are also the compensation issue. Trading Pena won't net the same type of return as Crawford and nobody should expect such a thing. However, for a team who's looking for power, can accept a few flaws, and afford the price tag, Pena is very attractive option even if it's for a one year rental. I'm not going to speculate on a return, but I'm guessing the Rays could do pretty well in any potential deal.

What I do want to look at is the return if Pena is retained and then walks at the end of the season. According to Eddie Bajek's Elias Projections, Carlos Pena is a type B free agent. Remember, this is based on his 2008 and 2009 seasons. When/if Pena hits the market next season, his compensation will be based on 2009 and 2010. Usually players who have declined over a three-year period while getting older don't improve from one season to the next, however, there are always exceptions. Nonetheless, a Type-A ranking for first basemen doesn't come easy; none of the 2009 free agent first basemen have Type-A status and only Mark Teixiera earned it in 2008.

I have no idea how the Elias rankings are created, but over the two years before he hit free agency, Teixeira averaged a slash line of .307/.406/.557 with nearly 32 home runs. Over the last two seasons, Pena has averaged .237/.367/.515 with 35 bombs. I'm going to assume that to obtain a Type-A status, Pena's going to need to regain his 2007 form and then some, which is unlikely.  What's more than likely to happen is Pena will retain Type-B status and his former team will receive a supplemental pick instead of the potential two picks a Type-A would.

This raises another issue. Getting draft picks for potential free agents is not necessarily a good thing for the Rays. Sure, adding young talent is always welcomed, but even late first round picks cost money (see LeVon Washington). The Rays already have four high picks in next year's draft. If they aren't able to sign all four they will receive an addittional compensatory pick(s) in 2011. This will be in addition to their regular pick and any potential picks received from free agents with "type" status( Crawford, Pena, etc.). That could end up as a lot of money for unproven talent; or on a few picks not wasted, per se, but picks not maximized due to budget restrictions.

Once more, Pena is still a good player and even at $10 million dollars should still provide value, but for a Rays team looking to cut corners in places to improve others, a look in his direction is smart business. Replacing Pena wouldn't be easy, but it wouldn't be as hard as say, replacing a Carl Crawford.

For example, Russell Branyan is a free agent. Coming off a 2.8 WAR season, Branyan could give you similar production for probably half the cost. Branyan is also looking for a two-year deal, so he may not be ideal. The Rays could go the platoon route and find a dance partner for Willy Aybar. Another former Ray, Eric Hinske could work well with Aybar. Or the Rays could go the unconventional route and move Ben Zobrist to first allowing Sean Rodriguez to get the bulk of the time at second base. I could go on rosterbating, but you get the point.

There are the intangibles: leadership, smile%, pre-game dances, and between pitch mound meetings, but in terms of things we can measure, exploring a deal involving Pena seems prudent for a team that is constantly working around the big payroll elephant in the room.

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