PORT CHARLOTTE — The swing looked good, nary a sign of the broken fingers that ended his 2009 season a month early. But it was Carlos Peña's beaming smile that stood out.
It was a true reflection, he said, of how excited he was to be back on the field as the Rays went through their first full-squad workout Wednesday. And also, a symbol of how he plans to carry himself through what could be his last season in what he calls "the best place on Earth to play baseball."
Peña is an educated and erudite man, and in his head, he knows he may be done with the Rays. He's making $10.125 million at the end of his three-season deal and realizes he may not fit in their future, payroll-reduced plans.
But in his heart, he doesn't want to consider the possibility. He came to the Rays just before spring training 2007 (on a minor-league contract) with his career in shambles, and his reconstruction and the building of the team transpired together.
"I think everyone knows how much I love this place," he said. "I feel like I've grown up with the team."
So he says it's his "desire" to stay, that it's "a no-brainer for me," that even though he is represented by typically hard-nosed agent Scott Boras, the decision ultimately will be his.
"I understand markets. I understand what I could be worth, I'm not blind to that," Peña said. "But I think it would be silly for me to ignore what this team means to me. It would be just absolutely silly. I would be lying to myself and everyone else if I just said I don't care. It's not true. Even though I consider myself an intelligent person, very well-educated about the business of baseball, I think it's going to be a balance."
There hasn't been much in the way of talks yet, and Peña figures it may wait until the end of the season, as the Rays also deal with Carl Crawford's expiring contract (and the near certainty they aren't keeping both).
But while Crawford, who will hit free agency in his prime, is most likely out of the Rays' price range, Peña, at age 31, is in a different situation. And he said Wednesday he would be willing to give (up) a little to make it work, as he did signing his $24.125 million deal before the 2008 season.
"There is some value for me to play in Tampa Bay; obviously, how much, that's the big question," he said.
Until there is an offer to decide on, Peña will put off the speculation and concern and maximize the opportunity for himself and his family (wife, daughter and a baby on the way) so that if he does leave, it will be with no regrets: "Make sure that you enjoy yourself because you know what this place means to you. So do not waste a second. That's kind of my attitude with it. Just enjoy this."
Even if they can't agree on his contractual value, the Rays know how much he is worth.
It goes beyond the AL co-leading 39 homers he hit last season and the 116 (fourth most in the majors) over the past three. Beyond his Gold Glove defense at first base. Even beyond his considerable community relations ventures such as leading an effort to raise money for Haiti earthquake relief.
Team president Matt Silverman said he's "one of those players" known as a leader on and off the field. Ben Zobrist called him "the joy" of the team, because "he keeps everything in perspective and he makes everybody smile."
Manager Joe Maddon went with the soul. "The soul or the spirit," he said. "He's the one guy on a daily basis that's willing to go and touch everybody and make sure everybody's in a good place mentally. He's a strong enough person within for himself that he's able to share. … And he gives of himself to everyone else more than anyone else on the team."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]com.