A near-perfect free-agent ballplayer is available and waiting for the Rays. He is a proven power hitter — second to Alex Rodriguez in home runs in the American League the past four years. He knows how to work a count — second to Jack Cust in walks in the AL the past four years. He has won a Gold Glove, is known to be a quality leader and his price has dropped because of a poor 2010 season. He is everything the cost-conscious Rays would normally be looking for on the free-agent market except, perhaps, for this nagging flaw: You just watched him post the worst batting average for a full-time first baseman in more than 100 years. Otherwise, I say re-sign Carlos Peña. Admittedly, this is not a popular stance.
Maybe not even a wise stance. Watch a guy's batting average drop year after year, and it's kind of hard to work up enough passion to suggest that he be brought back for another gazillion or so called third strikes. And, at age 32, it is fair to question whether we are beginning to see an irreversible erosion of a player's skills.
But, the truth is, Peña is exactly the type of player typically on Tampa Bay's radar. If he had just finished up this wreck of a season in, let's say, Oakland, there would be talk of how nicely he would fit in the Rays lineup because of his talents and relative lack of leverage.
Instead, people are wondering whether Magglio Ordonez might be the answer for Tampa Bay's hole in the middle of the order. Even though Peña has a higher slugging percentage than Ordonez the past four seasons.
Or maybe you are considering whether it is worth paying the high price that Paul Konerko will command in free agency this winter. Even though Peña has been the better hitter and better first baseman since 2007.
The same kind of arguments could be made about Vladimir Guerrero, who is three years older, or Lance Berkman, who bombed when he had to hit in the American League East.
In other words, I'm not sure anyone is a perfect fit. A lot of free agents had better seasons than Peña in 2010 but don't have the same defensive prowess. Or they cost too much. Or their entire body of work is not as impressive.
So is Peña still the answer for the Rays?
Ultimately, that will be determined by the market. If Peña's .196 batting average and diminished power numbers in 2010 scare off too many general managers, it's possible he could fall through the cracks the same way Aubrey Huff did last offseason.
Huff was coming off a poor season in Baltimore in 2009 and signed a one-year deal with the Giants for $3 million. If Peña finds a similar reception, the Rays should be first in line with a one-year contract along with a fat option for 2012.
Unfortunately, the Rays are no longer in the minority when it comes to maximizing value through defense and on-base percentage. Just Wednesday afternoon, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was sounding awfully smitten by Peña on XM Radio, and there have been rumors for months that Washington will come to the table with a multiyear deal.
Others may be willing to offer Peña an incentive-laden one-year deal that would give him the opportunity to increase his stock for another run at free agency next winter. In either of those scenarios, the Rays would probably be better off looking elsewhere.
So what, at that point, would Tampa Bay's options be at first base?
Well, the Rays could move Ben Zobrist to the position full time, but then you lose the versatility that has made him so valuable the past two years. You could give the job to Dan Johnson, but he would be a downgrade defensively. You could take a look at Cuban prospect Leslie Anderson, but he's better suited to the outfield and hasn't played a day in the majors.
There are a handful of first basemen on the free-agent market, but most are probably too expensive (Konerko, Huff, Adam Dunn) or not terribly attractive (Berkman, Derrek Lee, Jason Giambi). Adam LaRoche is a possibility after the Diamondbacks failed to exercise a $7.5 million option, but he has Peña's high strikeout rate without the walks, defense or as much power.
The best possibility might be finding a suitor in a trade. The Dodgers appear to be losing faith in James Loney, who is a strong defensive first baseman and a decent line-drive hitter who has never developed as expected after hitting .331 with 15 homers in a partial season as a rookie in 2007. He's in line for around $4.5 million in arbitration and would still be under a team's control for two seasons.
On the plus side, there are more possibilities than there would be at some other premium positions.
There are enough first basemen wandering the streets, and the Rays have enough in-house candidates, that they can afford to be somewhat selective and patient throughout this process. You might recall some years ago, the Rays took a gamble on a first baseman with more potential than production in his past. A guy who signed a minor-league deal just a couple of weeks before spring training.
As it turned out, that Carlos Peña guy wasn't so bad.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]