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Tampa Bay Rays Reunite With Carlos Pena; Sign Slugger To One-Year Deal

Pinch me, I think I'm dreaming. I was hoping against hope that the Tampa Bay Rays would bring back Carlos Pena, and now that it's finally happened, I can barely collect my thoughts and put them into coherent sentences. My brain is one garbled up collection of emotion at the moment...not that I'm complaining.

And well, it looks like it's not just me:

Pena is obviously pumped about the move, texting back: "Sooooo excited ... !!!!!" and saying he's finalizing details now. ... Confirmed the deal is a one-year contract for $7.25-million. (Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Times)

From a purely emotional, fan-centric perspective, I couldn't be happier that Pena is back. He was always one of my favorite players, and his smiles and positive attitude makes him one of the most love-able players in baseball. I have so many positive memories attached to him, and he's arguably one of the best players in franchise history. I'm sorry for getting so gooshy, but it just feels like he belongs in Tampa Bay, you know?

From an analytic perspective, my feelings are a bit more tempered. First off, I should make it clear that Pena was the best free agent hitter still on the least, among those hitters not named Prince Fielder. He had a .225/.357/.462 line last season, which was good for a .354 wOBA, and his defense was around average at first base. In general, he's still the same hitter he was with the Rays; he has tons of power and a great walk rate, but he does strike out a ton and ground out to second frequently.

I recently looked at Pena over at FanGraphs, and I basically highlighted three reasons to be a bit cautious with your C-Pain optimism:

  • Due to the shift and his pull-heavy tendencies, he's never going to hit for a high average at this point. His BABIP will always be low, and it will pull down his overall value some.
  • His power was impressive in 2011 -- 28 home runs, 58 extra base hits -- but Wrigley is a hitter's park, while the Trop is a pitcher's park. We saw his power slip some during the 2010 season, so it's unclear exactly how his power will play in Trop now. He will be 34 years old, and power hitters don't always age well.
  • While Pena has always been weaker against lefties, he was all but useless against them last season (.266 wOBA). Meanwhile, he still continued to crush righties at an All-Star level (.383 wOBA), so the question remains: how much will these splits regress in 2012? Pena is surely better against lefties than he showed last season, but at the same time, I wouldn't expect him to hit them like he did back in 2009 (.352 wOBA). How far should the Rays move him down the lineup against lefties, and should Maddon platoon him against certain tougher lefties?

So the 2012 version of Carlos Pena isn't perfect -- he's closer to a +2 win player than a +4 win player -- but he's also the best overall hitter the Rays could add to their lineup right now. And at only $7.5 million, the Rays are paying him like he's a +1.5 win player; considering he's averaged +2.2 win a season over the past three years, he seems like a good bet to reach that level and then some.

But what about Casey Kotchman? Kotchman did have a better offensive season than Pena in 2011 -- Kotch was 25% above average, while Pena was 19% above average -- but the question isn't who had the better season. It's who will have the better season. And as we've covered ad naseum here before, the #MagicofKotch was awesome and wonderful, but not sustainable. He benefited from lots of grounders slipping through the infield, and if we regress his BABIP to league-average, he's essentially a +1 win player at first base.

Don't believe me? Marc Normandin spells out the Pena-Kotchman decision in a lot more detail than I have, so check that out.

So sure, the Rays could have gotten Kotchman for cheaper than this. But if they had the money to spend, why not acquire the better player? Why not grab the player with the better floor and the higher ceiling? The Rays' payroll is now creeping past $60 million, so kudos to them for investing money in the team to make it as good as possible. I didn't think they had the room to push the budget this high in 2012, so it looks like I have to (gladly) eat my words.

Welcome back, Los! I think I speak for us all when I say it's great to have your smile back in town again.