Friday, January 11, 2008

Royals Insider: Tony Pena

As we delve forth into the biographical and prediction-filled journey that is Royals Insider, we must recap a blast from the past, in the affectionate name of Tony Pena. Of course, I'm not referring to that Tony Pena. Or that Tony Pena. I'm talking about our newest Major League shortstop acquisition.

Yes, that Tony Pena! Mierda!

Born in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, Pena was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Atlanta Braves in the summer of 1999. Throughout the first two seasons in the Chops' farm system, Pena established himself as a little-power and little-contact hitter, but a defensive wizard nonetheless. Unlike some prospects, who waver and flash throughout their career, Pena's career Minor League numbers tell the entire story. His OPS-es from 2000 through 2006 were .495, .585, .593, .632, .648, .632, and .666, respectively. Uncannily low by any regard. Pena's defense, at the beginning, was also rather uninspiring. In his six years in the minors, he never posted a fielding percentage higher than .965, playing only shortstop and nothing else. Perhaps, because Pena began playing baseball at the age of 16, it's meaningful to expect him to improve?

Slightly, but not necessarily founded.

Despite hitting a somewhat flukish 11 home runs for AA Greenville in 2004, Pena has solidified himself as the player that he is. However, what is perhaps most notable about Pena's Minor League record is his ever-so-slight improvement at each stop upward on the organizational ladder. The offensive numbers are paltry at best, as his OPS has never topped the .666 he compiled for AAA Richmond in 299 at-bats in 2006. His Minor League totals respectively are unbelievably low - a .252/.285/.332 hitter in the minor leagues will certainly never translate well into the big-leagues.

On March 23, 2007, the Royals traded starting pitcher and 2004 fourth round draft pick Erik Cordier for Pena. Desperately seeking a shortstop, Dayton Moore and the Royals would grant the 26-year-old everyday opportunities for the entire 2007 season. Pena would play slightly below replacement value overall, according to the sabermetric statistic VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), which, mind you, does not include defense in its study. Before the 2006 season, three Baseball Prospectus writers voted for Tony Pena to win the Cristian Antonio Guzman Award for the position player most likely to put up the lowest VORP in regular playing time. In fact, he won the award for lowest VORP (-7.8) and Runs Created (47) for a regular shortstop. Meanwhile, Cordier had been plagued with injuries most of his career, having missed all of the 2005 season while recovering from a knee injury, and missing 2007 and part of 2006 with Tommy John elbow reconstruction project. The Braves more or less took Cordier as a long-term gamble, while sacrificing a player stuck in their Minor League purgatory, playing second fiddle to then-shortstop Edgar Renteria.

Despite his lackluster at the very best offense, Royals scouts herald his arm, range, and glove, using him in the same sentence as no-punch, all-field ex-Royal ballplayer Fred Patek. However, on July 7, 2007, he broke the club record for consecutive at-bats (192) without a walk.

Ideally, Pena's days as an everyday are probably numbered. At age 27, I'm expecting him to improve ever so slightly from his 2007 campaign offensively and defensively, as he matures physically and gains only his eleventh year of experience playing the game, period. Pena will likely receive everyday playing time as a shortstop, spelling Esteban German, Angel Berroa, Alberto Callaspo, or Jason Smith on that rare occasion.

Here is my crystal ball for Pena's 2008:

GS/G: 139/144
AB: 524
H: 140
BA: .267
OBP: .300
SLG: .355
OPS: .655
1B: 106
2B: 29
3B: 4
HR: 1
RBI: 33
BB: 19
K: 83
SB: 6
CS: 4
OPS+: 72

But the guy can field!....for reasons I will explain below.

On-field performance:
Significant dropoff from 2007: 25%
Repeats 2007 form: 55%
Numbers improved from 2007: 20%

Injury contingency:
Injured for 15 days or more: 5%

Chances traded before Opening Day: 10%
Chances traded, dropped, or demoted mid-season: 25%

Job allocation:
Starting shortstop: 75%
Backup/reserve: 15%
Platoon: 5%
Sent back to Omaha: 5%

- Exceptional glove work and range; above average arm (2007: +10 UZR, which measures runs above or below average, +13 Zone Rating, 4.56 RF9 at SS)
- Largely unrefined, but raw, speed (7 3B's in 2007, 5 SB's)
- Can take advantage of wide gaps at Kauffman Stadium, with his limited gap-oriented power (20 2B's and 5 3B's at home)

- Utter lack of plate discipline (drew an astounding 10 walks last year, in 509 AB's)
- Little power to compensate for that patience (career .332 SLG in MiLB, career .354 SLG in MLB)
- Well below average baserunning skills (59% SB success rate in MiLB)

In essence, the positive attributes that separate Tony Pena from the Almighty Angel Berroa are defensive range and glove and the lack of primal instinct in fundamentally screwing up in crucial or obvious situations. This would be included, but not limited to: getting picked off numerously, carelessly letting the groundball pop out of the glove, and swinging at curveballs three feet southeast of the strike zone (but instead hacking at pitches merely two feet away from the plate). One reason to be optimistic about Tony is that he has improved marginally in each Minor League level, perhaps from not beginning baseball play until age 16.

Ultimately, I feel Pena’s liabilities at the dish do not compensate for his exceptional defensive abilities. His utter lack of power combined with a complete lack of plate poise make Pena an automatic out in any league and in any situation. Perhaps his only redeeming quality is his ability to make decent contact. However, I’m skeptical Pena can even continue demonstrating that attribute in 2008. Although I would love to witness him improve significantly – or even marginally – next season, I’m not banking on it. I tabbed his OPS+ at an underwhelming six points above last year, but, sadly, he'll probably only perform slightly above replacement level. I'm not even sure Jason Smith would be much less of a liability at the shortstop position than our light-hitting friend.

I believe what the front office must comprehend is that the 1970’s and the 1980’s no longer exist. No longer can a team truly count on an automatic out in the lineup, even if he has superior defensive abilities. In an era where injuries occur so frequently and teams never second guess sending a slightly injured player directly to the 15-Day D.L.- or more - counting on Pena, even in the #9 slot, defense included, will probably not make us significantly better in the short term or long term.

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