After six seasons in the big leagues, Carlos Pena found himself at a crossroads heading into the 2006-07 offseason. Heading into his age-29 season, Pena had hit .243/.331/.459 with 86 homers over his first 1925 plate appearances in the Show, good for an above-average 109 wRC+ and 111 OPS+. Yet while it was incorrect to say that Pena had truly struggled, there was certainly a sense that the 10th overall pick of the 1998 draft had underachieved.
Five different organizations, after all, had already parted ways with Pena over those first six seasons. The Rangers (Pena’s original draft team) and A’s both dealt him, and the 2006 season saw the Tigers and Yankees both release the slugger. An 18-game stint with the Red Sox ended up being Pena’s only taste of Major League action in 2006, and he headed into free agency that winter again looking for another opportunity.
That next chance came in Tampa Bay, as Pena signed a minor league deal with the then-Devil Rays in February 2007. Since player payroll was as much of an issue for the Rays then as it is now, the club was constantly on the lookout for low-cost acquisitions, and a minors deal for Pena seemed like a worthwhile flier. That said, Pena had been reassigned to Tampa’s minor league camp and could potentially have been an expendable piece once again had Greg Norton not suffered an injury just prior to Opening Day. With a sudden vacancy at first base, Pena was inked to a Major League contract and found a place on the 25-man roster.
The rest, as they say, was history. As Pena celebrates his 42nd birthday today, he can look back with pride on a big league career that spanned 14 seasons, with the apex of that career coming in a Rays uniform. From 2007-10, Pena went from being an under-the-radar signing to a major contributor to Tampa becoming a winning franchise.
After a bit of a slow start in April, Pena caught fire the rest of the way over the 2007 season. He hit .282/.411/.627 over 612 PA, ranking second among all batters in OPS+ (172) and fourth in both home runs (46), and wRC+ (167). Fangraphs’ isolated power metric also indicated that Pena boasted the most pure power of any hitter in baseball that season, with a league-best .345 mark.
That enormous breakout earned Pena a Silver Slugger Award, AL Comeback Player Of The Year honors, and a ninth-place finish in AL MVP voting. It also earned him a three-year, $24.125MM extension that offseason, giving him some security after beginning his career in such itinerant fashion. From the Rays’ perspective, they were making a sizeable commitment by their standards, yet that contract also yielded a huge return for the team.
While Pena never again matched his huge 2007 numbers, he delivered three more quality seasons over the length of the extension, hitting .224/.353/.479 with 98 homers from 2008-10. In addition to that big bat, Pena also provided some excellent glovework at first base, earning a Gold Glove in 2008.
Perhaps most importantly, of course, Pena also helped the Rays (who were now officially the Rays, having dropped the “Devil” portion of their name after the 2007 season) finally become relevant. After 10 straight losing seasons, Tampa Bay shocked the baseball world by not just getting over the .500 mark, but also winning the AL East and the American League pennant before losing to the Phillies in the World Series. After dipping to an 84-76 record in 2009, the Rays won another division title in 2010, though they were beaten by the Rangers in the ALDS.
These two postseason trips ended up being the only playoff baseball of Pena’s career. While he didn’t hit much during the World Series, Pena was an otherwise stellar performer in October, hitting .269/.388/.522 with four homers over 80 postseason PA.
Pena’s career arc is a prime example of why every offseason sees teams hand out minors contracts and Spring Training invitations to all manner of veteran players. While many of those veterans end up being roster filler or don’t make it to the end of camp, there’s virtually no risk involved on the club’s part, it only takes one of those minor league deals to hit for a front office to look like geniuses — you never know when a change of scenery could turn an underachiever into a late bloomer. Just when Pena’s career looked to be on the downswing, his revival in Tampa led to eight more seasons in the majors and a special place in the memories of Rays fans.