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Doubt Jeremy Pena At Your Own Peril

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Despite a cancelled minor league season, the young shortstop’s progress as a prospect has been palpable over the last year

Houston Astros v Atlanta Braves Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

We’ve chronicled the progress of shortstop prospect Jeremy Pena very thoroughly here at The Crawfish Boxes. Perhaps that’s at least partially because information on minor leaguers has been scant during the COVID-19 fallout, but Pena’s progress, even with limited opportunities in organized play, has been too great to ignore. Currently patrolling the infield dirt for Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Republic’s LIDOM, Pena has been a breakout star on the winter ball scene of late, answering what few questions remained about him as a player and solidifying his status as a top prospect.

Most Astros fans likely know the broad strokes of Pena’s story by now. Son of big league journeyman Geronimo Pena, Jeremy was a third round pick of the Astros back in 2018 out of the University of Maine, the highest draft slot achieved by a Bears player since the 1990s. The pick was widely praised by media prospectors, who had listed him as a popular sleeper in the leadup to the draft.

At this point in his career, Pena was known almost entirely for his defensive chops. While evaluators did note his strong bat-to-ball skills and he produced at a solid level offensively for his college club, his build was slight and he struggled to drive the ball with any level of authority, instead generating more incidental contact in most of his plate appearances. Nonetheless, he had plenty of fans in the prospecting community, who felt that the strength of his glove would give his bat a light enough load for him to see consistent playing time.

As Pena got his professional career underway, his profile immediately began to change for the better. Right away, he began to add significant muscle to his frame, and accelerated the process in his first pro offseason. When he returned for 2019, his body looked almost entirely different, and he was playing about 15 pounds heavier than in the prior season. The changes to his physique immediately translated to his play, as his ISO more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, with batting average gains following.

Scouts were enthused by the kind of contact that Pena was beginning to create, particularly after his midseason 2019 promotion to High-A Fayetteville, where he finished the season on a tear over 43 games, hitting .317 by spraying line drives around the yard. Better yet, the added weight seemed to have little effect on his movement ability, be it in the field or on the basepaths. He swiped a total of 20 bags on the season across two levels of play, and his defense continued to draw rave reviews.

The jump in performance garnered significant new attention for Pena, who was beginning to stand out in a scant Astros farm system. Unsatisfied, he attacked the 2019-2020 offseason with the same vigor he had the prior year, adding another 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for a 2020 campaign in which some felt he had a chance to make his big league debut. As we’re all aware, the situation was complicated by the COVID-19 shutdown, which held Pena out of live action for nearly the entire calendar year.

Hoping to avoid a lost season, Pena threw his name into the LIDOM hat, eventually becoming an early selection for Las Estrellas Orientales. Pena had been primed to play in winter ball in 2019 before pulling out late, but became an instant hit when he finally debuted earlier this year. He’s continued to stand out for his work with the leather, but more exciting is the fact that he’s been a dynamic offensive threat, slashing .306/.349/.430 against fairly high level competition, adding 7 stolen bases in 7 attempts to boot. He’s collected a total of four homers between regular and postseason play, including a couple of towering drives that would’ve been pipe dreams for the player that Pena was in his college days.

Playing on a club with numerous veterans, Pena has been one of the league’s stars and his team’s every day leadoff man, proving in the eyes of many that his offensive breakout in 2019 was just the beginning of an upward trajectory. The LIDOM season is relatively short and competition is a mixed bag, but it’s not an easy environment for a young player to show out in, and Pena’s performance adds serious momentum to what was already becoming a hot name in prospecting circles. Having gradually answered questions about both his hit and power tools since being drafted, Pena now presents with an exceptionally well-rounded profile that gives him a real chance to be an every day infielder at the highest level.

After receiving some light back end top 100 support at the conclusion of the 2019 season, I’d expect to see him slot into most lists in the next round of updates, including my personal ranking. The addition of meaningful power to his profile, even if his raw pop is still below major league average, is a hugely important development. While his hand-eye coordination has always allowed him to make consistent contact, that’s only half of the equation when it comes to hitting for average, never mind power, and when Pena was in the earlier stages of his career most felt that even were he able to maintain low strikeout rates, he’d nonetheless hit for a low average due to a low quality of contact. Now that evaluators have seen Pena’s pop track positively for two consecutive years, his bat should have few doubters remaining. Even if his offensive toolset projects for a 7-hole type of role, it looks like it fits in a big league lineup, which is all that a player like Pena, who excels defensively and on the basepaths, needs to succeed.