Dealing budding slugger Pena a risk worth taking
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
They traded the right guy for the best they could do. Wily Mo Pena may hit 60 home runs in some not-distant season, but a general manager cannot allow himself to be hogtied by the potential of a conspicuously imperfect player.
It comes down to scouting, which Wayne Krivsky, the Reds' new guy, has done a lot of in recent years. So informed, he was able to peer over the vast shoulders and recognize that Pena, for all his spectacular power, remains a can-miss prospect. The big fellow demonstrates it with each fly-ball adventure and every awkward strikeout.
An athlete like Pena can put fear in the other team, and even more in his own. No GM wants to be the guy who traded Babe Ruth. The best ones are sufficiently self-assured to act on the probabilities that they calculate with discerning eyes and seasoned judgment.
In the essential arithmetic of the Reds, Pena's number was up. The team needed pitching more than it needed him. Had he been immobilized by the possibility that Pena will become a more complete ballplayer, Krivsky, in the tradition of more timid executives, would have turned down Bronson Arroyo for his starting left fielder. He chose, instead, to accept the cardinal commodity that was being offered, rather generously, for the Wily Mo we know.
Some guys are just ballplayers. Pena isn't one of those. The young slugger, at 24, is not without prodigious gifts, chief among them being the ability to send baseballs far out of ballparks when met squarely; but in his sport, the more fundamental skill is the meeting squarely. It's the command of the game, the instinct to adjust to clever pitches and twisting line drives and sudden scenarios. On those accounts, Pena's upside is seriously compromised.
Credit Krivsky for the courage to act on that sober truth and suppress the dread of what Pena's brute strength might enable him to one day do. Credit Krivsky for making a deal that Cincinnati badly needed.
His eager owner, Bob Castellini, has been spinning optimistic takes on the Reds' pitching staff; but Krivsky knew better. So, deep down, did Castellini. Especially after Saturday.
On that unsettling afternoon, two of the Reds' new pitchers started games simultaneously. Dave Williams, the dividend for Sean Casey and an immediate member of the Cincinnati rotation, surrendered eight earned runs in just over three innings against the Braves. Michael Gosling, once the leading candidate to occupy the fifth starting slot while Paul Wilson works his way back, gave up the same number while recording just one out against the Pirates. Meanwhile, over the first three weeks of the Grapefruit season, Wilson and Eric Milton have pitched just two-thirds of an inning between them.
Suddenly, the need was so blatantly urgent that somebody had to go. Adam Dunn would have fetched a better pitcher than Arroyo, but a Dunn deal would have sent away a singular player and severely lessened the everyday lineup. With Pena, it isn't necessarily so.
His departure from the outfield strengthens it defensively, which wouldn't have been the case if Austin Kearns had been the traded player. Without Pena - with Dunn back in left field and Scott Hatteberg (a prior and forward-looking purchase on Krivsky's part) at first base - manager Jerry Narron, a defensive kind of dude and big fan of little things, can tinker with his several professionals, putting to better use some combination of Ryan Freel, Tony Womack, Quinton McCracken and Matt Kata.
So it's all good if Arroyo can pitch. He is a reasonable return for a player of Pena's unpredictability, a solid starter on the rise - his last two seasons have been his best - and arriving in his prime. The same, of course, could have been said last year of Milton, and we know how that worked out; but Arroyo is less expensive and more likely to keep the ball in the county.
A lanky right-hander who records grunge-rock guitar and was actually named for Charles Bronson (the tough-guy actor), Arroyo surrendered only five home runs to right-handed batters last year, a curious thing considering he pitched at Fenway Park. He gave up 17 to lefties, which suggests, wrongly, that he surmounted Boston's peculiar parameters.
The fact is, he was a far better pitcher in other places, as attested by his road earned run average, which was fifth-best in the American League. His frequency of walks was 10th best. His opponent batting average was ninth.
He pitched 205 innings. He won 14 games. His 20 quality starts were the most on the Red Sox and one more than Aaron Harang engineered in leading the Reds.
Put it all together, and he was pretty fair.
The same could be said for the trade.