With the Cubs 18 games under .500 and 12 games out of first at the All Star break, our beloved team looks to be on their way to another bad season. Naturally, with the trade deadline looming at the end of this month, the attention of the front office and Cubs fans alike has turned to possible trades that may go down to put the team in a better position to contend in 2012 and beyond. Speculation of who the Cubs could look into targeting was put together by Jordan in a post earlier today, and Cubbies Crib will be sure to bring you the latest rumors floating around Major League Baseball in the coming weeks.
In the mean time, the All Star break is also a good time for some reflection. There have not been many positives to feel good about from the first half of the 2011 season, and as a result the heat under Jim Hendry’s GM seat is the hottest it has ever been. And rightfully so. The mistakes and blame have been well repeated in the media, including Cubbies Crib, and amongst Cubs fans. But credit should be given where credit is due for the good moves too.
That brings us to the reflection on Hendry’s decision to sign free agent first baseman Carlos Pena this past off season. The veteran lefty slugger was handed a $10 million one year contract with $5 million deferred to 2012. The eight figure contract for a 32 year old (at the time) coming off of a season where he hit just .196 was scoffed at by the fan base and some in the media. The home run totals over the past few seasons and the Gold Glove caliber defense at first were not enough in their eyes to justify the big salary commitment and overcome the poor batting average. Pena’s slow start to the 2011 season, including the failure to hit a single home run in the month of April, only added fuel to the fire for fans who disagreed with the signing.
But then the homers started to come, with seven in May and ten in June. Pena now finds himself sitting at the top of the team leader board in home runs ahead of Aramis Ramirez, who has heated up along with him, and Alfonso Soriano, who started the season hot with ten home runs only to be stuck at 14 at the break. Pena’s batting average is still an unattractive .225 on the season, but he does lead the team in walks with 49 and trails only Ramirez for the team lead in RBI.
2012 All Star and sophomore phenom Starlin Castro leads the Cubs with 18 errors so far this season. But the kid short stop will be the first to tell you that the error total would be pushing closer to 30 if it were not for the glove of his first baseman. Pena’s positive clubhouse attitude and leadership qualities, especially amongst the Latino players on the roster, has gone under the radar so far this season, only being brought up by White Sox color commentator Steve Stone shortly after the signing was made.
But what has gone under the radar just as much is how Pena has been playing compared to the other two rumored targets the Cubs were looking into to fill the hole at first base for 2011. There was a strong contingent within the Cubs fan base that wanted to see Adam Dunn in Cubs pinstripes over Pena. The Dunn supporters were willing to look past his career average of 179 strike outs per season and ham fisted hands in favor of the additional home runs and RBI Dunn would bring over Pena.
The now White Sox DH also featured a better batting average and on base percentage than Pena in 2010. Dunn’s career OBP is boosted his ability to have 100+ seasons over the years, but his walk total of 77 in 2010 was the lowest in his career since 2003, when he hit .215 with a .354 OBP. With the Sox this season, Dunn has gotten off to a slow start and ended the first half with a .160 average and .292 OBP while striking out a league leading 117 times with only nine homers and 34 RBI to show for it. Dunn has not played in the field much for the American League White Sox, but based on his track record in the field, it does not take much imagination to picture just how much worse off the Cubs record would be with Dunn trying to flag down Castro’s wild throws to first base.
Dunn was also able to command a $56 million four year deal from Sox GM Kenny Williams that figures to keep the slugger in black pinstripes until 2014. Hendry rightfully deserves blame for foolish long term deals for Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome, but credit the Cubs GM for not making the same mistake, even if the tight budget played a factor into the decision. The one year deal for Pena allows the Cubs to pursue a Prince Fielder or an Albert Pujols if ownership chooses to splash some cash for 2012 and beyond, or even reward Pena for his productive 2011 season with a multi year contract.
The other briefly rumored free agent first base target was Lyle Overbay. The veteran lefty eventually landed with the Pirates on a one year $5 million deal. While Overbay has contributed to Pittsburgh finding themselves one game out of first place in the NL Central at the break, his line of .240 BA, .310 OBP with six homers and 34 RBI does not do much to have fans screaming that the Cubs should have signed Overbay instead of Pena. The only positive had the Cubs signed Overbay is that they would have saved $5 million over the Pena deal. But even then the Cubs would be back to the drawing board in 2012 as Overbay’s 2011 numbers so far would not project him as a top target at the position.
There is still the second half of 2011 to play where Pena could fall on his face while Dunn suddenly turns around his 2011 season to show that he is a better power hitter than Pena. But the Cubs first baseman is on pace to match his career consistent production numbers, and in the end the Cubs are getting exactly what they knew what they were paying for, even if the argument is that Hendry over paid. Mid season report cards are popular this time of year and considering the options that were available to choose from prior to the season, this move by Hendry deserves a B+.