From his tenure in St. Louis through today, Jeff Luhnow has been known for finding talented players in unconventional places, whether it be through waivers, trade, free agency, or the draft. His 2018 third-round pick, Jeremy Pena, was far from an under-the-radar prospect, but comes from a University (Maine) that hasn’t seen an alum make their big league debut since 1995. The Astros clearly liked Pena, making him Maine’s highest draftee in school history, taking him approximately a round ahead of his projected range. He carries a skillset that is typical of an Astros college draftee, bringing potential for plus defense and an advanced approach to the diamond.
A native of Providence, Pena was a strong prep player and was drafted in the 39th round by the Braves out of high school in 2015, but declined to sign and took his talents to Orono. He started at short for three consecutive seasons for the Black Bears, steadily improving as a hitter and fitting in two Cape Cod League seasons in 2016 in 2017, earning an all-star nod in the latter. Pena was raised by former big league infielder Geronimo Pena, and it shows in his play. Coaches and scouts consistently praise his defensive ability at short, where both his glove and arm draw plus grades.
Pena has an impressive build and a discerning eye at the plate, and there may be an opportunity for him to tap into more power than he has shown in games. He has a tendency to hit the ball on the ground thus far, and was never able to get much going with wood bats during his summer ball runs. He may be a candidate for a swing adjustment in the pros, as the cut he has employed in college hasn’t allowed him to tap into his natural strength as a hitter and is a bit loose. He shows at least gap power at times but makes a bit too much weak contact at present. Pena is also an above-average runner, and was a successful base-stealer at the college level.
With Pena’s fluid actions, arm strength and range, Pena could likely man any position on the infield dirt if asked, and his most likely role in the big leagues could be that of a utility infielder. That said, if he can hit at even a modest clip, his defensive prowess, patient approach and base-running ability, he could produce enough value with his diverse skillset to play regularly.
He certainly wouldn’t be the first draftee with a similar profile to do so- though he may not produce as much power, Pena’s game is reminiscent of Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien, and his career to date looks quite similar to Semien’s through the same age. The two shortstops have similar frames, and like Pena, Semien struggled to hit the ball with authority as an amateur. Though he had a repuation for strong defensive ability up the middle, Semien hit just ten home runs in three years with the Cal Bears in college, and posted a modest .123 ISO in his first run in pro ball. His power seemed to click from there, his projection took a leap, and he has gone from a 6th rounder who signed for $130k to being worth nine wins in four years for the A’s. For Pena to achieve regular status, he will likely need to develop the kind of 10-15 home run power that Semien has shown outside of his 27 HR outlier in 2016. While I’m usually a hit tool chaser, Pena’s diverse toolkit has me excited to track his development, and I like his chances to outperform current projections.