ST. PETERSBURG, FL: Designated hitter Wily Mo Pena #29 of the Seattle Mariners bats against the Tampa Bay Rays during the game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Free agent Wily Mo Pena has signed a two-year contract with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, of Japan. One can't help but feel like this is right where he belongs.
For the record, you were warned. When Wily Mo Pena was promoted by the Diamondbacks this season, and when he was subsequently acquired by the Mariners, we here at Baseball Nation were all over it. Now this is our second post in two days about Pena going to Japan. If you find this post to be superfluous, that's more a problem with you than a problem with us. We've established that we like writing about Wily Mo Pena. You're the one who's reading.
Anyhoo, yeah, Pena is Japan-bound. Fukuoka, to be specific. Pena became a Major League free agent after the season but, rather understandably, he and his agent were unable to find an agreeable job in North America, so they turned their eyes to Japan, whose Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have signed Pena to a two-year contract worth at least $5 million.
If you listen to Pena's agent, the idea is that Pena can play regularly, earn good money, and then come back stateside when his contract's up. At that point, after all, he'll be turning just 32 years old. I'm sure that is the idea. It's a fine idea. But at the same time, all I can think is that this just feels so right.
Pena was supposed to be a star. He was signed at the age of 16. At 22, he slugged .527 for the Reds. His performance dropped off, as he didn't develop the way anybody wanted, but he remained likable for his personality and entertaining - perhaps even legendary - for his home runs. Many are familiar with the shows that Pena has put on in batting practice, and many are familiar with the shows he's less frequently put on in games. Pena had star promise through and through; the only thing missing was star performance.
It's well-established by now that Pena isn't going to become that star. Not here. He's batted nearly 2000 times in the Major Leagues, and he has a .748 OPS to show for it. Pena's swing has too many unfixed holes to achieve much more than that at the highest level. But in Japan? Against quality yet inferior competition?
It's funny - I don't know what the successful immigrant to Japan looks like. I don't know if there's a profile. But in my head, there is a profile, and Wily Mo Pena is such a good match it's like they made the profile in his honor. In my head, Japan is where quadruple-A hitters go to excel, and it's hard to find a better example of a quadruple-A hitter than Wily Mo Pena. If you believe in the existence of quadruple-A hitters, that is.
MLB: .250/.303/.445 (1845 plate appearances)
AAA: .325/.394/.586 (782 plate appearances)
Japan's reputation has long been that its baseball is somewhere in between triple-A and the Majors. That seems like just the perfect place for Pena to be what he was supposed to be here.
There is one concern, noted by WEEI's Alex Speier - Pena is said to be vulnerable to breaking balls, like most quadruple-A sluggers, and Japanese pitchers throw a lot of breaking balls. Many more than American pitchers and Latin pitchers. Pena might struggle to adjust. Yet while Japanese pitchers throw more breaking balls than most Major League pitchers, they're also worse than most Major League pitchers, so Pena could flourish. Pena should flourish.
It's so easy to imagine. Wily Mo Pena: big in Japan. He could be Fukuoka's lovable giant, the thumper they brought over to blast the longest home runs the fans have ever seen. Pena could return to America at the end of his contract, but if he's done well for himself, I don't think that I'll want him to - I'd prefer that he stay where he is, popular, productive, valuable. I don't think this is where he belongs. Japan? I think Japan is where he fits best.
Pena's new team calls home the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome.new home ballpark overseas has an exclamation point in its name, and I can think of nothing more appropriate. Godspeed, Wily Mo, you enormous son of a bitch.