Although he has remained the starting first baseman for the second-best team in baseball, Carlos Pena hasn't enjoyed one of his more productive seasons. Flirting with the Mendoza Line for much of the year, Pena has hit .203/.331/.425 after posting a slash line of .252/.382/.553 over his first three seasons with the Rays. The decline in production couldn't come at a worse time for the 32-year-old; not only is he being relied upon by a World Series contender, but he also faces free agency this winter.
The season hasn't been a total disaster for Pena. Although UZR doesn't necessarily back it up, he's still regarded as a strong defensive first baseman. At the plate, his walk and home run rates have stayed in line with his career ratios, and a career-low .223 BABIP suggests that he's been a little unlucky. However, he's also hitting fewer line drives (14.7%) and more ground balls (45.3%) than he ever has in his time with Tampa. Given his uninspiring numbers and the fact that he's part of an overcrowded group of free agent first basemen, Pena won't have nearly the leverage this winter that he and agent Scott Boras would like.
Of course, Pena also isn't the only free-agent-to-be at first base who has seen his production slip this season. Lance Berkman and Derrek Lee have struggled as well, while Troy Glaus, Jorge Cantu, and Lyle Overbay have all suffered through horrid slumps that put a dent in their overall numbers. Players like Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Aubrey Huff and Adam LaRoche have positioned themselves well heading into free agency, but the falling stocks of Berkman and Lee should work in Pena's favor.
Pena's situation heading into the offseason is somewhat reminiscent of Adrian Beltre's a year ago. Another Boras client, Beltre was coming off a disappointing, injury-marred 2009 campaign that saw him post a .683 OPS in 477 plate appearances. Because of his defensive prowess and his past offensive production, Beltre was still presented with multi-year offers before eventually accepting a one-year, $10MM deal with the Red Sox. Beltre plays a more premium infield position and was part of a thinner third base market, so Pena may not receive the same kind of offers, but Boras could explore a similarly incentive-laden one-year contract. If the first baseman rebounds, like Beltre has, he may earn himself a bigger payday down the road.
Currently, Pena projects as a Type B free agent, which means signing him won't cost a draft pick. Even if he were a Type A, the Rays would be unlikely to offer arbitration; Pena is making $10.125MM this year and the team plans to reduce payroll in 2011, so they wouldn't want the first baseman to accept an arbitration offer. With no compensation picks attached to him on the open market, Pena could get a multi-year deal from a club like the Nationals, who reportedly "love" him. It wouldn't be a surprise, however, to see the Boras client sign a one-year contract with an eye on improving his stock for 2012.