Pena's Slump Takes Toll

By Ted Cahill

Carlos Pena was already in what might be the worst slump of his nine-year career before he faced Mark Buerhle on Thursday.

Taking an 0-for-3 during the 18th perfect game in Major League history didn’t help matters for the Tampa Bay first baseman. It just extended his misery to 3-for-28 with no extra base hits in nine games. Entering the Rays’ weekend series at Toronto, Pena was hitting .222 with 24 home runs.

The left-hander also has struck out 121 times in 95 games this year, putting him on pace to break Jack Cust’s AL strikeout record. Despite all of Pena’s struggles, he is still owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues and 92 percent of Yahoo! Leagues.

It has been stated this year that Pena is not paid by the Rays to hit .300 or even .280 and no fantasy owner drafted him with that in mind. But at what point does his extended slump present a problem to fantasy owners?

Pena’s longest stretch this year without an RBI is nine games, meaning that even with the awful batting average, he continues to provide production. He also leads the league in home runs and has even contributed two stolen bases. If your league uses OBP, that number is more than 100 points higher than his batting average, an excellent sign.

But he’s still only hitting .222 and batting average is universally used in fantasy baseball leagues. What if he doesn’t come out of this slump? Is a player like Casey Blake or Russell Branyan actually a better option?

Both Blake and Branyan (among many other first basemen) have an average at least fifty points higher than Pena and have driven in about 10 fewer runs. Branyan is tied for the league lead in home runs, while Blake has half their total. So far, Branyan and Blake have produced better value than Pena, and Branyan has actually produced better numbers.

But as I’ve already written, I don’t think Branyan will continue to produce at such a high level for the remainder of the year. Blake is a steady producer and is doing exactly what is expected of him. As for Pena, most projections include a better batting average, without any power sacrifice.

His career second half numbers show that this should happen. Pena is a better player in the second half historically, hitting more home runs and adding 20 points to his average.

However, supporting Pena with another player may be worthwhile. He is predictably hitting much worse against left-handed pitching this year. Against right-handers he this .236 with 17 home runs and 45 RBI, but against lefties those numbers drop to .200, seven and 15. Joe Maddon will never make Pena a platoon player, but fantasy owners could consider it, especially competing in a division that includes CC Sabathia and Jon Lester.

That option obviously isn’t for everyone, but if Pena’s batting average concerns you that is one way to work around it. Pena also still has plenty of trade value and if a player like Blake can be included in a deal that shores up your team in other areas, you won’t be sorry.