02/27/2006 3:39 PM ET
Pena dedicated to honing his skills
Outfielder hoping to improve at the plate, in the field
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Wily Mo Pena may have finally made the breakthrough into the Reds' everyday lineup as their left fielder.
But will Pena finally have the breakout season, too?
He's working on it.
"It's the opportunity I've been waiting for," Pena said. "I just have to do my job in Spring Training the best I can and work hard and everything. Having everyday at-bats will be nice."
Seeing Pena make the most of those at-bats and reaching the potential many have expected, would be even nicer for the Reds.
"The big thing is focus and being mentally locked in every time you go up there," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "The fewer at-bats [he] just gives away ... the easier it is to become a good hitter."
Regular spots in the outfield opened up for Pena and right fielder Austin Kearns this winter, when the Reds dealt first baseman Sean Casey to the Pirates. Adam Dunn was subsequently shifted from left field to first base. Since first baseman Scott Hatteberg signed earlier this month, there has been speculation that Pena or Kearns could be dealt and Dunn moved back to left field before the season opens. Without directly commenting on the situation, general manager Wayne Krivsky indicated no deals were imminent.
Still just 24 years old, Pena is entering his fifth big league season. The Dominican native was originally signed to a Major League contract as a 17-year-old by the Yankees in 1999. He came to Cincinnati in the 2001 Drew Henson trade. After he debuted as a September callup in 2002, he was out of Minor League options by 2003 and was kept on the Reds' big league roster even though he wasn't ready for the big leagues.
Since then, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Pena has made observers, "Ooh and ah," with his imposing raw power and some tape-measure home runs. He has made those same people moan and groan, however, with undisciplined plate appearances and way too many strikeouts. He batted .218 in 80 games during his first full season.
Last season, while batting .254 with 19 homers and 51 RBIs in 99 games, Pena struck out 116 times while walking just 20. He belted 26 homers in 2004 but struck out 108 times and walked 22. His career on-base percentage is a low .306.
In the past, some in the organization had taken to comparing Pena to a young Sammy Sosa, who also had brute power but a high amount of strikeouts. Narron and hitting coach Chris Chambliss would prefer to see him emulate another Dominican superstar.
Albert Pujols of the Cardinals.
Pujols is a career .330 hitter and has collected over 40 homers the past three seasons. He also draws many more walks than he has strikeouts. Late last season, Chambliss sat Pena down and had him view game tapes of the All-Star hitter's approach.
"The main reason I showed him that wasn't even about copying Albert or anything," Chambliss said. "It was more the balance part of it. Albert has great balance. His body is not jumping and that means his head is not jumping. When your head is not jumping, you see the ball better."
The hope is that Pena will make better choices and lay off more pitches out of the strike zone. It should translate to more hits, not just more home runs.
"I want to get my average up and everything," Pena said. "I want to be more selective at home plate and more confident."
Chambliss didn't expect Pena to completely eradicate his high-strikeout totals.
"But if he's able to consistently wait on the ball and see it a little longer and have a shorter stroke to the ball, the strikeouts can be cut down without losing his great power," Chambliss said.
The transformation of Pena into an everyday player will also require a commitment to defense. The outfielder's poor fielding skills have been often maligned.
"I think it'll definitely help him to be in one spot and not bouncing around," Narron said. "He'll come to our ballpark every day, he'll know it out there and see the ball come off the bat."
Narron says he has seen Pena's dedication and desire to improve in the field.
"I think he's willing to work," Narron said. "I think anybody that says he's not willing to work hasn't been around him enough. I'm sure at times he would get frustrated and wonder, 'What am I working for?' It's not that he's a lazy guy."
Will all of these efforts yield a more complete ballplayer?
Again, Pena is working on it.
"I just want to do the best I can for me and the team," Pena said. "I work hard all the time. If somebody says something, I don't know why. I do the best I can."