On December 16, the Astros' roster sported limited options at the First Base and Designated hitter positions. The incumbent at First appeared to be Brett Wallace, who had recently struggled to recreate his minor league success when given an opportunity in the majors. No clear front-runner for DH existed, and the popular names included J.D. Martinez, Justin Maxwell, and 1B Nate Freiman, who had just been acquired ten days earlier during the 2013 Rule V draft.
On December 17, the Astros made what has been their only noteworthy free agent acquisition when they signed 34-year-old Carlos Pena to a one-year, $2.9 million contract that also included up to $1.4 million in incentives, presumably based on plate appearances and performance. Pena's signing crushed the hopes of backward-looking Astros' fans who shouted from the top of the JPMorgan Chase tower that Lance Berkman needed to stage a glorious comeback with the Bayou Bombers in 2013.
The 1B/DH position became even more convoluted when the Astros added Chris Carter in a trade with Oakland in February, but Pena still figures to be a prominent lineup presence this season.
The 2012 Season
Getting the obvious out of the way, Pena did not have a very good season last year. Though he played in all but two of the Tampa Bay Rays' games, his offensive output fell short of his typical performances. He slugged only 19 home runs and drove in 61 runs despite hitting in the middle of the lineup for most of the season. Among 143 qualified hitters in the majors, Pena's .197 batting average ranked him...143rd. By WAR, Pena only offered 0.9 wins more than the average replacement player. He struck out in one out of every three plate appearances, which was good (or bad) for 4th-worst in the majors.
On the "good news" front though, only four batters walked at a higher rate than Pena, giving him an On Base Percentage higher than all except for four of the 2012 Astros. That matters, as it put him in position to score 72 Runs in 2012 despite his strikeouts. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (percentage of balls he puts into the field of play that are NOT turned into outs) was well below his career average, indicating that his struggles were compounded by old-fashioned bad luck.
The 2013 Season
In baseball, intangibles matter. And Pena has intangibles in spades. Without Pena, the Astros' presumed 25-man roster will have an average age of about 23 or 24 years old. Most of these young men will be in their first or second year in the major leagues. Think back to your first job, or if you are still in school, your freshman year. you were surrounded by people who instructed you on the proper way to work, behave, dress, and talk in your new environment, or by those who showed you how by example. Imagine that situation, only without those individuals to guide and form you just by proximity to their experience and professionalism (or lack of).
By all reports, Carlos Pena is one of the most well-respected and well-liked major league ballplayers still active . He's a hard worker with a great attitude, and he knows how to work, behave, dress, and talk as a major leaguer. His influence alone could bring the Astros to a level of maturity and professionalism that simply can't be achieved by listening to coaches or by trying to figure things out on their own.
On a professional sports team though, intangibles are not enough to keep one's job. Pena will have to perform at the plate and possibly in the field as well. As it stands, it's hard to envision a situation where Pena is not in the lineup every day at DH or 1B. By scouting and by advanced metrics, Pena is an excellent fielder which will prevent him from being limited to the DH position.
As noted above, Pena's performance in 2012 is somewhat of an aberration compared to his season performance. It's easy to dismiss his output as the onset of a decline, but at only 34 years of age, Pena is still within a reasonable window for peak performance at the plate. Couple his history of success with his stellar on base skills, good power, and a BABIP that is closer to his career averages, and it is easy to visualize a scenario where Pena is the most productive Astros' hitter in 2013.
Batting Average isn't everything. In fact, it is closer to the truth to say that Batting Average is nothing. Were I to offer you a player with a .340 On Base Percentage, 24 Home Runs, and 75 RBI as the 1B/DH of the 2013 Houston Astros, most fans would be giddy. But people have trouble looking past that Batting Average, and this has prevented Pena from getting off on the right foot with the Houston faithful. Forget the Average. Carlos Pena will be the most productive hitter for the 2013 Houston Astros. Unless he is traded at mid-season for good prospects. Which is just fine also.