It's not surprising the Tampa Bay Rays have signed first baseman Carlos Pena. We're weeks away from spring training camps opening up, and the Rays remain first baseman-less, while Pena is jobless. The two are acquainted plenty, as well: Pena didn't get his start in Tampa Bay, but he was given his first real chance to stick there, a chance he used to break out by hitting 44 homers.
The Rays are coming off of a year with Casey Kotchman as their first baseman, as well. Kotchman had a fine campaign in 2011 -- it was easily his most productive campaign since 2007 with the Angels, when he was just 24 years old and hit .296/.372/.467. But in between then and last year, Kotchman combined for just .254/.316/.378, and bounced from the Angels, to the Braves, Red Sox, Mariners, and finally the Rays. Getting through a season with Casey Kotchman hitting .306/.378/.422 is the baseball equivalent of surviving a turn in a game of Russian Roulette. You don't exactly want to pull that trigger again just because it worked out fine once.
Granted, Kotchman is younger than Pena was when he first broke out, but the former Angels' prospect never had the raw power of Pena. (Who has averaged 34 homers a year over the last five seasons, despite hitting just .236 in that stretch.) He also doesn't have the plate patience of Pena, and while Kotchman is a good defensive first baseman, the difference between their gloves doesn't make up for the difference in bats.
They were equal in that regard in 2011, with Pena's OPS+ of 123 matching Kotchman's 128. But that's Kotchman's first season above-average since 2007, while Pena has been below just once -- and barely, at 96 -- in his 11-year career. Pena is also more likely to be an above-average first baseman: His True Average, a figure developed by Baseball Prospectus that distills offensive efficiency into one number adjusted for just about everything, has been above that of the average first baseman for five years running. Kotchman's 2011 campaign was the first time that's happened to him since 2007 -- see a trend developing here?
Pena is the more reliable of the two first baseman. Both have spent plenty of time down near the Mendoza line, but when Pena does that, he still produces above-average on-base percentages due to his stellar walk rate and power output. Kotchman doesn't have that room to fail -- if his batting average craters, he doesn't have the power to make up for it, and his glove isn't that good.
PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus's forecasting system, projects Pena to hit .229/.355/.468 in 2012, for a TAv of .291. That's above the expected average at first base, yet again. Kotchman, on the other hand, is down at .254/.323/.370, and a .263 TAv. That's more in line with a decent shortstop season -- a far cry from what's needed at the offense-heavy first.
It's not just PECOTA that's pessimistic about Kotchman. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS puts Kotchman at .272/.339/.395. It's not as far of a step back as PECOTA, but it's middle infield material. ZiPS loves Pena as much as PECOTA, too (.230/.355/.480).
Pena should be able to do that again, even coming back to pitcher-friendly Tropicana. He's done it before, and as Tommy Rancel points out, his 2011 didn't seem to be entirely a product of lefty-friendly Wrigley:
Some have expressed fear about his 2011 power being a byproduct of Wrigley Fields' friendly confines; however, 16 of his 28 bombs came on the road and his .258 ISO away from Chicago (Isolated Power is slugging percentage minus batting average to measure raw power without the inclusion of singles) was the seventh highest for major leaguers (min. 300 road plate appearances).
Kotchman, though, has a career .280 batting average on balls in play, and he posted a .335 mark in 2011. The turf helped this extreme groundball hitter -- Kotchman has the kind of groundball-to-flyball ratio that makes pitchers jealous -- pick up more infield hits than usual. More than that, though, his grounders just had eyes: his career BABIP on grounders was brought up to .194 in 2011, in part due to the .250 mark he posted last year. Grounders were a problem in the past -- Kotchman has been nearly 90 percent worse on grounders relative to his other batted-ball types over the years -- but in 2011 he was 10 percent better on them.
Fundamental change? Or just a season of luck? The Rays have likely told you how they feel about it by signing the first baseman they let walk in the year before Kotchman.