In baseball more than any other sport, not every draft pick pans out. Players can suffer injuries or struggle in the low minor leagues, which can lead to them getting labeled as a bust. Carlos Peña seemed to be headed down that route, but in 2007, he had a season that shocked everyone and helped kickstart a run of success for a struggling franchise.
Peña’s Career Leading Up to 2007
Peña was drafted out of Northeaster University with the 10th overall pick in the 1998 MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers. After tearing up the minor leagues, he made his MLB debut in September of 2001. He played solidly in his brief cup of coffee, but he was traded along with Mike Venafro to the Oakland A’s for Jason Hart, Gerald Laird, Ryan Ludwick, and Mario Ramos. As shown in the movie Moneyball, Peña opened the 2002 season as Oakland’s starting first baseman, but he was traded as part of a three-team trade to the Detroit Tigers in July of that season.
Peña finished eighth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and continued to produce above-average offensive numbers in the next few seasons, but not to the lofty expectations that were set for him. In 2003, he missed time due to a calf injury and in 2005, he was demoted to Triple-A after a sluggish start. He showed some flashes of greatness, including a three-homer game in 2003 and a six-hit game in 2004. In 2005, Peña hit 15 homers in 38 games after getting brought back to the majors. In 2006, though, he struggled mightily in Spring Training and was released by the Tigers.
The Yankees signed Peña to a minor-league deal early in the 2006 season but he never cracked the big-league roster and was granted his release that summer. Shortly after his release, the Red Sox signed him and he was called up to the majors 11 days later. Peña went 9-for-33 in 18 games for Boston but he had just three extra-base hits and was mainly used as a defensive replacement. Following the 2006 season, Peña hit the free-agent market once again.
The 2007 Season: A New Era Begins
In February of 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed Peña to a minor-league contract. He was set to battle with veteran Greg Norton for the starting first baseman job. The Devil Rays opted to send Peña down to the minors towards the end of Spring Training, but Norton suffered a knee injury, paving the way for Peña to make the roster. Still, Peña began the year as the back-up for Ty Wigginton and didn’t receive a ton of at-bats. Peña hit just .213/.240/.468 in April with four homers in 50 plate appearances.
After an injury to third baseman Akinori Iwamura, Tampa Bay opted to move Wigginton to third base and insert Peña into the everyday lineup. With his newfound playing time, Peña began to hit his stride, batting a strong .356/.437/.671 with six homers, five doubles, and 15 RBIs in 73 plate appearances in May. Even with the return of Norton and Iwamura, Peña remained in the middle of the Devil Rays’ lineup, forcing manager Joe Maddon to move Norton to DH, Wigginton to second base, and B.J. Upton to the outfield.
Peña’s batting average fell in June, but his power stroke kept his numbers strong. He hit .253/.404/.602 for the month with seven homers, eight doubles, and 17 RBIs. By the All-Star break, Peña’s numbers were some of the most impressive in MLB, as he sported a .287/.395/.609 batting line with 20 homers, 14 doubles, and 52 RBIs. Surprisingly though, Peña wasn’t selected to the All-Star Game, with Carl Crawford being Tampa Bay’s lone representative.
Second Half: No Slowing Down
Other than April, July was Peña’s weakest month, but he still put up a .968 OPS with eight homers and 22 RBIs in 121 plate appearances. By the end of the month, Pena was hitting .276/.378/.588 with 25 homers, 20 doubles, and 67 RBIs for the season.
Peña continued to mash in August, hitting .267/.409/.594 with eight homers, nine doubles, and 25 RBIs in 127 plate appearances. In the final week of the month, Peña had two multi-homer games, after he had a rare rough stretch where he didn’t homer for two weeks earlier in the month. By the end of August, Peña sported a .982 OPS with 33 homers and 92 RBIs.
While the Devil Rays were nowhere near the playoffs, that didn’t stop Peña from having a monstrous month of September. He had the best month of his career, hitting a blistering .318/.484/.796 with 13 homers and 29 RBIs in 122 plate appearances. Peña also recorded eight multi-hit games during the month and walked 26 times, giving him a 21.3-percent walk rate for the month. On September 5 against the Orioles, Peña hit two homers (including a grand slam) and drove in seven runs in a 17-2 beatdown victory. 17 days later, Peña hit two homers and drove in four runs against the Red Sox, though Boston eventually came back won the game, 8-6.
Overall, Peña finished the season with a .282/.411/.627 (172 OPS+) batting line with 46 homers, 121 RBIs, and 7.2 rWAR. Peña finished in the AL’s top five in homers, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, RBIs, walks, and rWAR. He also walked at a career-best 16.8-percent clip and struck out in a career-low 23.2-percent of his plate appearances. Peña played strong defense too, racking up 8 DRS at first base.
Accolades and Effect on the Team
In a loaded AL MVP field that featured generational years from Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordoñez, Peña finished ninth in MVP voting. He was awarded a Silver Slugger for first base and was named the AL Comeback Player of the Year.
The Devil Rays only went 66-96 on the season and finished in last place in the AL East for the ninth time in their first 10 years of existence. However, the team made some big improvements. They won five more games than they did in 2006 and scored almost 100 more runs, moving from last in the AL in runs scored to eighth. The team’s OPS jumped from .733 to .769, with their batting average rising from .255 to .268 and their OBP rising from .314 to .336. They also were third in the AL in homers with 187. Peña was now leading a core that included Upton, Crawford, and Iwamura, along with top prospect Evan Longoria waiting in the wings. With James Shields and Scott Kazmir also emerging as a solid rotation duo, there were reasons to start getting excited in Tampa Bay.
Ensuing Years: The Rays Rise up
In their first year known as just the “Rays”, Tampa Bay started to turn some heads. With Longoria coming up and performing as advertised and the continued strong play of Peña and Upton, the Rays had the second-best record in MLB, winning the AL East with a 97-65 record. Ben Zobrist began to display his value with power and versatility, while journeyman Eric Hinske regained some of his form from earlier in the decade. Peña finished in the top 10 in MVP voting again and won a Gold Glove, racking up 15 DRS. Longoria and newly-acquired shortstop Jason Bartlett also received MVP votes, with Longoria winning AL Rookie of the Year. The young pitching rotation of Shields, Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and Edwin Jackson held up their end of the bargain, and Dan Wheeler, who was acquired in exchange for Wigginton in 2007, became one of the team’s best relievers.
In the playoffs, the Rays beat the White Sox in four games in the ALDS, with Peña going 5-for-10. In the ALCS against the reigning champion Red Sox, Peña hit three homers and drove in six runs, helping the Rays get past Boston in an intense seven-game series. Unfortunately, the Rays fell to the Phillies in the World Series, with the offense falling flat. This season though kickstarted a stretch of seven straight winning seasons for the Rays.
Peña made his first All-Star Game in 2009 and competed in the Home Run Derby. Despite missing the final four weeks of the season, Peña finished the season tied for the AL lead in homers with Mark Teixeira. Peña’s power stroke and ability to draw walks remained with him in the coming years, but his overall play continued to decline.
After a brief stint with the Cubs, Peña returned to the Rays in 2012, and he even served as the team’s lead-off hitter for a little bit. He retired following the 2014 season, after some brief stops with the Astros, Royals, and Rangers. He finished his career with 286 homers, an .808 OPS (117 OPS+), and 25.5 rWAR. Peña hit 163 of those homers with the Rays, where he went from being a roster cast-off to one of the game’s most feared sluggers and helped turn a league laughingstock into a perennial contender.
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