By all accounts, Carlos Pena is a quality human being and leader of men. There are several people with the Washington Nationals that would have loved him to be a leader in this organization. They liked his left-handed power bat and nimbleness around first base. He would have been a great free agent signing for this team.
Four years ago.
Anybody in baseball could have had Pena for a song after the 2006 season, which he spent much of in the minor leagues, earning just 37 plate appearances for the Boston Red Sox. Only dumpster-diving Tampa Bay took a chance on the one-time top prospect, and to Pena's credit, he finally put it all together, as the next season he had a career year (.282/.411/.627, 46 HRs, 121 RBIs).
Since then? It's been a steady decline in average and on base percentage in each season, culminating in 2010 with .196/.325/.407.
As I wrote several days ago, Carlos Pena's bat is falling apart. I will be shocked if he rebounds anywhere near the normal numbers he's put up for the Tampa Bay Rays the last four seasons, and I feel the Chicago Cubs did the Nats a favor by signing him to a one-year, $10 million contract.
There were rumors around the Winter Meetings that Pena played hurt last season on a bum ankle, and that finally healthy he would return to establish precedents, in which case his agent was prescient in getting Pena to accept Chicago's one-year offer. I don't buy it. A bum ankle might be responsible for the power drop, but if anything his walk rate should have stayed steady. Instead, it was the lowest in his four years in Tampa.
So now what?
The Nationals really don't want to fill the position with an in-house option, because frankly they don't really have any. There's no one ready in the minors, and with GM Mike Rizzo's emphasis on building around pitching and defense, it runs counter to his beliefs to switch Josh Willingham or Michael Morse to full-time duty there.
Of course, that assumes Josh Willingham makes it to opening day wearing a Curly W.
So the Nats will presumably turn their attention to Adam LaRoche, one of the few remaining free agent first baseman still standing.
(Especially since Paul Konerko re-signed this morning with the Chicago White Sox.)
LaRoche is a decent hitter, a decent fielder, and a decent guy. There's just not that much to get excited about. But there's also not that much to really be afraid of.
He's a 30-year old left-handed lifetime .271/.339/.488 hitter, and in seven full-time seasons he's never hit above or below the .271 mark by more than .014 points. He averages 26 homers and 93 RBIs per 162 games, and is competent -- but not elite -- at first base. His range factor and fielding percentage are in the top half of NL first baseman over his career, and his UZR of 4.8 ranked him third among qualifiers in the majors last season.
He's decent. That's the extent of what you can say about Adam LaRoche. If the Nats can ink him to a two-year deal, he'd be a competent -- if somewhat unexciting -- alternative at first base.
Of course, the team just up the road 45 miles is still looking for a full-time first baseman as well. Bidding war on Adam LaRoche? Let's hope not. He's a fall-back guy, not a prized commodity. There's a reason he's played on five teams in seven years -- teams are always trying to upgrade the position.
Hopefully this season Chris Marerro finally puts it all together in the minors and gives Nats fans reason to hope the position can be filled with home-grown talent in the near future. Otherwise, first base -- along with starting pitching -- has to be a point of emphasis for Rizzo when he prepares to use those extra first round picks he got when Adam Dunn walked.