Infielder Carlos Pena #23 of the Tampa Bay Rays calls for the fly ball against the Atlanta Braves during the game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Rays are pretty good!
Of course, the Rays would be even better with just a modicum of production from their first basemen this season. Which they haven't gotten. Not even a bit of a modicum, as Tampa Bay's first basemen rank 13th in the American League in OPS and 14th (last) in runs batted in.
And Tampa Bay's first basemen have essentially been Carlos Peña, Carlos Peña, and Carlos Peña. Even though Carlos Peña has been hitting like Carlos Peña all season.
I didn't see this coming. Last season with the Cubs, Peña batted just .225, but was still productive thanks to 101 walks and 28 home runs. When the Rays signed Peña for $7.5 million, it seemed (to me) like a mild bargain.
It wasn't. His batting average has plummeted, and his walks and home runs are down some, too.
Wednesday, manager Joe Maddon defended Peña ... but also acknowledged that it's time for a change, at least on occasion. From Marc Topkin (via the Tampa Bay Times):
Maddon reiterated his oft-stated view that Peña is affected dramatically by the defensive shifts used against him but acknowledged that his "confidence has taken a hit based on a lot of well-struck balls being outs."
Maddon said Peña is guilty of "expanding his strike zone" and needs to be better at organizing it, by swinging at strikes and taking balls, and going to the plate with more of an approach of not making an out as opposed to trying to get a hit.
Peña has the lowest batting average of the 140 major-leaguers with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and the second-most strikeouts, 159. Maddon will try to juggle keeping Peña involved and confident while also using other players at first base to maximize the Rays' overall offense.
To his credit, Peña seems to have a good attitude about all this, and considering the Rays' history, we shouldn't be shocked if he hits a huge home run at some point in the season's last few weeks.
The oddest thing about Peña's season: He's actually upped his line-drive percentage quite a bit this season, from 15.5 percent to 19.4 percent, which actually his best mark since 2003. The news isn't all good, though. Well, obviously it's not all good. But Peña's hitting a lot more infield pops than last season. One wonders if he's simply swinging too hard, at least on occasion. Leading to lots of line drives, but also lots of pop-ups.
Then again, it's easy to read too much into five months of batted-ball data.
If it's my team, I do a couple of things.
One, I ask Peña to work real hard on his bunting. He's got only four bunt hits this season, which is too few. Considering all those extreme infield shifts.
Two, I order Peña, with all due respect, to sit on the bench when a left-handed pitcher is starting for the other team. There simply isn't any excuse for Peña to get any action at all against southpaws, especially when the rosters expand this weekend. Against left-handed starters, Ryan Roberts or Jeff Keppinger should be playing first base. Or Ben Zobrist. Or Chris Giménez, for gosh sakes. Really, it doesn't matter.
Joe Maddon's a great manager. But it's time for a change at first base. Past time, actually.