It's been a foregone conclusion for some time now, with Nats fans everywhere arguing for months about what each adds to a lineup, that the Washington Nationals would turn to soon-to-be-former Tampa Bay Rays' first baseman Carlos Pena to replace the Nats' big middle-of-the-order bat Adam Dunn if Dunn decided to sign elsewhere this winter or the Nats decided to go in a different direction at first, ending his two-year reign as the HR king in D.C. In a late October interview with 106.7theFan's Mike Wise and Holden Kushner, then-recently renewed Nationals' Skipper Jim RIggleman told the hosts that if the team wasn't, "...able to work anything out with Adam, it is a pretty good free agent class of potential first baseman out there so, we've got our sights on Adam but there's going to be some other pretty good talent out there."
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo acknowledged Pena as a possibility when asked directly about the 32-year-old, 10-year Major League veteran in an interview on Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio's "Power Alley" with Kevin Kennedy and Jim Duquette. "[Pena] fits kind of what we're doing," Mr. Rizzo said, after having previously said that Washington wanted to build with "pitching, defense, speed and athleticism" in mind, with a first baseman who could, "play 'both sides of the ball', that can produce offensively and play good defense also," as the Nats' GM put it. Pena, Mr. Rizzo said, was, "...one of a handful of guys that would give us what we're looking for. And like I said, we're still in communication with Adam Dunn."
For his part, Carlos Pena, (who was not offered arbitration by the Rays even though he would have brought Tampa Bay a supplemental pick in next year's draft), a .241/.351/.407 hitter who put up a .196/.325/.407 slash line last year, the 1998 1st Round pick by the Rangers, who went on to play for the A's, Tigers and Red Sox before finding success as a Ray, thinks it's all prepared him well for wherever he plays next season. As he told Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio's Mr.'s Duquette and Kennedy in a recent interview (as recounted in Tampa Bay.com writer Marc Topkin's 11/16/10 article entitled, "Pena says ball in Rays court, is open to 'new possibilities"):
"'With all my successes and struggles I feel that I am a better ballpalyer than I have ever been at this point.'"
Asked about becoming a free agent, Pena said, "Surprisingly, I am extremely calm about it,":
"'I know that there are teams out there that will be interested in my services. I can’t stress how important it is for me to be in a place where I’m wanted and a place where they're going to be counting on me.'"
Mr. Topkin, as just about every Nats beat writer has, identified the Nationals as one of the teams, along with the Cubs, who were "rumored to be interested" in Pena or one of the other first baseman on the free agent market this winter, of course, though Victor Martinez and Aubrey Huff being taken off the market this week surely narrowed the first base field significantly. Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald.com identified Carlos Pena as a target for the Cubs, who were once and still might also be in the market for Dunn, in an article this week entitled, "A pre-Thanksgiving appetizer", in which he notes that the numbers disagree when it comes to Pena potentially having a bounce-back 2011 campaign:
"He had a line of .196/.325/.407 with 28 homers and 84 RBI. His BABIP was only .222, which suggests a correction might be in order. Pena’s groundball percentage went from 29 in 2009 to 44.9 in 2010. The flyball percentage went from 54.1 to 40.6. If those continue, the BABIP might not rise as much as we might otherwise suspect."
Fangraphs.com has had Bill James' 2011 projections listed for several weeks now, and as Mr. Miles notes, Pena projects "...at .228/.354/.473 with 30 homers and 86 RBI," with Mr. James also predicting a 50-point jump in BABIP back up to .272 which is closer to Pena's career Batting Average on Balls In Play of (.279). Mr. James also has Adam Dunn posting a .247/.373/.511 slash line and a .305 BABIP with 39 HR's and 102 RBI's in his 2011 projections. For the record, Mr. James projected a .251/.389/.518 slash line for Dunn in 2010, with 38 HR's and 105 RBI's. Dunn produced a .260/.356/.536 line with 38 HR's and 103 RBI's. Pena, in Mr. James' projection, was expected to be somewhere around .240/.360/.498 with 36 HR's and 99 RBI's in 2010.
Dunn's D is reportedly still a concern league-wide, with Chicago Sun-Times' writer Gordon Wittenmyer writing recently in an article entitled, "Hendry insists finding right players more important than making splash", that, "Dunn's questionable fielding and a sure-to-be-hefty price tag all but rule him out," as an option for the Cubs. The move from left to first doesn't seem to have improved Adam Dunn's reputation, as most teams interested in his services once again reside in the American League where he'd be used as a DH. Dunn went from a -37.6 UZR/150 in left in '09 to a -3.3 UZR/150 at first where he was only slightly below league average in the NL. Pena's -3.7 UZR/150 at first in 2010 was down from his career -2.7 career UZR/150 at first, but he made just 6 errors and had a .995 fld%. Dunn made 13 errors with a .990 fld%, but the argument here has always centered on just how important defense really is at first. The lack of interest from NL teams should tell you how those in baseball's front offices think...
Another American League team was added to the discussion on Thanksgiving morning, however, when ESPN.com's Buster Olney published a story (most of which exists behind the INSIDER pay wall) about the Texas Rangers interest in the 31-year-old Houston, Texas born Dunn. Mr. Olney, however was just "speculatin' on a hypothesis" like Chief O'Doole in Miller's Crossing, since he doesn't cite any sources with Texas who express interest in Dunn, but Mr. Olney does cite anonymous sources in reporting on Washington's intentions:
"Heard this: Some team officials that have talked about Carlos Pena view the Washington Nationals as being the club most enthusiastic about acquiring the first baseman."
Which of course, follows FOXSports.com's Jon Morosi's report on the Nats' interest in Dunn earlier this week, in an article entitled, "Martinez deal has larger implications" in which he wrote:
"Speaking of Dunn, a source said today that the Washington Nationals aren’t pursuing him with much vigor any longer. They appear to be on the fringe of the sweepstakes now."
If you believe what you read, the Nationals seem to have made a decision, but publically all they've said is that Dunn's still the first choice and after that they have good options. Whether they'll wait til Dunn makes up his mind or move on Pena (assuming of course he wants to become part of the new new plan), the Nats better make a decision soon. The Winter Meetings are December 6-9th in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The Nationals need to come out of Florida with a serious bat at first and in the middle of their lineup if they haven't signed one before they even get there...