Wily Mo Pena might have power. Wily Mo Pena might have a swing perfectly tailored to keep Giant Glass busy out on the Mass Pike. Wily Mo Pena’s best years may be ahead of him, provided the 24-year-old slugger can make his approach at the plate more comprehensive.
He could indeed become the majors’ next great home run hitter with the patience that might accompany maturity, a keen eye to match his indubitable (if not sporadic) prowess at the dish. In terms of (here’s that word again) “value,” Theo Epstein and the Red Sox did make an upgrade in a deal that sent the popular Bronson Arroyo to the Cincinnati Reds, a team that is in such desperate need of pitching that a guy likely earmarked for the Boston bullpen becomes the Reds’ No. 2 starter.
Of course, Reds fans can’t be too psyched about what Arroyo said yesterday to the Pawtucket Times’ David Borges.
"No place is going to attract me," he said. "I don't personally enjoy pitching in the National League, because of all the things that come along with the National League. I wanted to pitch with a team I knew had a chance to be in the World Series every year. Not to say I couldn't with the Cincinnati Reds, but obviously it's probably more of an uphill battle. I just bought an apartment in Boston, it felt like my home. It's going to be different getting to know everybody, going back to square one."
"Hey, I'll go out and pitch my three years. I've got three years and I can go where I want."
So, that seems to be getting off to a good start.
As the Red Sox are concerned, Pena has “upside.” Arroyo, on the other hand, might be maxed out.
In building a perennial contender for the next three, four, seven years, the Red Sox have taken some risks in regards to youth. Josh Beckett has arm and blister concerns, but at just 25 he is worth the gamble. Coco Crisp might not quite be Johnny Damon’s equal yet, but his track record at age 26 hints that he might be a suitable replacement at lesser dollars. Young studs Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester are waiting in the wings to cement a solid pitching staff, just far enough away that Boston can get away with the aging Curt Schilling and David Wells for one more season.
Pena is the latest addition to this core of youth, his tremendous potential having just been seen in flashes thus far at the major league level. But that promise has yet to be cemented. He remains an extremely uncertain tool in his approach at the plate, torque seemingly more of an intention than keenly observing bad pitches.
Wily Mo Pena may have the tools to one day become a star in this league. Wily Mo Pena may become a Fenway favorite someday soon, joining the ranks of his Dominican countrymen David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in Boston sports lore.
But in 2006 at least, Wily Mo Pena is going to drive fans nuts.
Last season, Pena struck out at the same rate as old friend Mark Bellhorn (once every 2.6 at bats), who often walked back to the dugout under a chorus of boos and jeers at Fenway. Yes, fans might be a bit more forgiving with Pena, seeing as he slugged 19 home runs in those 311 at-bats, while Bellhorn struggled to hit .216 with seven homers in 283 at-bats. Pena also walked just 20 times over that span, while Bellhorn more than doubled that production (49).
Pena might slug a three-run homer with runners on first and third. He also is going to strike out at an alarming pace in that situation, driving fans to let out their aggressions on a work in progress.
Epstein knows this, and he clamored for members of Sox Nation to “be patient” with Pena, a player who is anything but at the plate. It is inevitable that Pena is going to at some point this season get the business from 34,000 baseball experts, and Epstein saw last season what kind of effect that had on guys like Bellhorn and Edgar Renteria. Will that same risk be attached to a young kid like Pena? And even if and when his approach at the plate does become more tailored, is the magic defense fairy going to fix his sometimes atrocious glove?
We can say what we will about Trot Nixon’s shortcomings in the game (perennially hurt, can’t hit lefties, etc.) but it’s hard to imagine Pena bringing the hard-nosed attitude that Nixon brings to the game day in and day out. One day, Nixon will be diving into the stands to grab a foul ball, while a day later, with Pena platooning out there, it might plop off his glove for a foul ball, giving the offense one more salivating shot at redemption. And on the third day, the Red Sox will activate Juan Gonzalez off the disabled list.
Odds are the Red Sox could be grooming Pena for a takeover in right field for 2007, with Nixon’s contract up at the end of the season. In building a solid core of youth for the future, it is the right baseball move to make.
Damon (of course) weighed in on the trade yesterday, criticizing the Sox once again for breaking up the core of players they enjoyed the past few seasons in the interest of getting younger for the long term. Yeah, how dare they. But in his latest rant, Damon did say something of note in that, “They have their plans, and they have their computers, and they believe that's right. Unfortunately, computers don't judge a person's heart.”
I know, how Kubrick of him. But back up a step and forget that he’s actually talking about himself again. Let’s remember that Nixon has played with more of that heart than anyone else in this organization over the past decade. And now, he’s received his own sign that his time may be near an end in Boston, all because he’s got a “3” leading the way in his numerical age and an even higher number in his salary. It’s a business, ownership and the players both like to repeatedly point out when it’s convenient, a game built on leadership and torch-passing when that view works for them. But it’s also a business when franchises sell players to the fans, who dish out more money every season when their new favorite player’s jersey hits the market. And then, soon enough, they’re gone. Raise your hand if you bought a “Renteria” T-shirt at full price last April. Suckers.
Sometimes with no personal connection, the game becomes business to the fans, too, and they have enough going on in their own careers to have to deal with that as an escape. Kids can play rotisserie ball on Yahoo! for free. Why should they pay $50 to see it live?
That’s not to say a team needs to be forever loyal (that’s you, Yankees) to its players, bringing them back with nothing left in the tank (hello, Bernie Williams) just because he’s part of the “family.” But there is also an underlying message here that says to guys like Nixon: Make this game and team everything in your life, but we’re not going to do the same to you.
That’s business. Even when a guy has done everything asked of him, he’s pushed aside for the next great thing. The Red Sox won’t and can’t apologize for that.
Whether they’re expressing regret over Pena by mid-July is another story. Wily Mo Pena is indeed a long-term project. But he’s also one that is going to be so maddeningly frustrating to watch develop that Red Sox Nation is likely going to label him a bust long before he gets the chance to achieve any level of greatness.