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Farm Futures: Surprise Power

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

We are all known to make some outlandish predictions from time to time. I said Edwin Encarnacion was going to hit 30 home runs this year (feel free to get started any time now, E5), and I have a 50 pack of Kurt Miller rookie cards from 1994 when I thought he was going to be the next great right-handed pitcher. The first one still could happen while the last one never did, but if I were to retire from prognosticating future greatness today, I have one shining moment that I can hang my hat on.

Back in 2008, I spent a speculative AL-Only reserve round pick on the 27 year old Nelson Cruz in my dynasty league. Cruz was coming off a season in which he hit just .235 with a .384 slugging percentage and had struck out 87 times while walking just 21 in 307 at bats. Yet, he had a .352/.428/.698 slash line in 162 at bats in Triple-A that season in which he had one less extra base hit in 162 at bats than he did in his 307 major league at bats. I was all too familiar with his Triple-Double-A label but in a 10 team 40 man roster league, there are worse risks to take. My risk paid off handsomely as Cruz immediately started tearing up the PCL for a fourth straight season but my impatience grew as he was stuck in Triple-A while Brandon Boggs got 334 plate appearances that season. It should be noted that Boggs has had just 26 major league plate appearances since the 2008 season, just for the sake of my own bitterness.

While Cruz was tearing up Triple-A and burning a spot on my reserve roster, I made the statement to my fellow Rays fans that the club should target Nelson Cruz in a trade. After all, he was not even on the Rangers' 40 man roster at the time so a trade would be easier to work out and the Rays sorely needed right-handed power to complement Evan Longoria in the lineup. Unlike most off-the-cuff comments, I was very serious about this. I called into local sports radio shows telling the hosts about this guy and rattling off his PS3-like statistics while comparing them to what Jonny Gomes and Willy Aybar were doing as the right-handed DH solutions that season. It ended up being a lost summer as a roster move was never made and all Cruz did was come up and hit .330/.421/.609 in 115 at bats later that season and the rest has been a very glorious fantasy history. Is it time to double down on crazy predictions again as yet another "Quad-A" player produces down in Triple-A?

What if I were to tell you there is a player in Triple-A right now that has a slash line of .348/.414/.640 over his last 200 plate appearances? He did just turn 29 years old this past offseason (remember, Cruz was nearly 28 when finally called up) and he has played in seven professional organizations and even mixed in some time in an independent league. If that is not enough to turn you off, the fact that it is Wily Mo Pena should just about do the trick. There is enough visual bias and past transgressions related to Pena to chase away most every fantasy owner out there but that did not stop defending NL-Tout Wars champion Nate Ravitz from grabbing Pena in FAAB this weekend in Tout Wars. After all, if the defending champ is willing to put his reputation out on the line to acquire Pena, surely you can.

Those last 200 plate appearances included 22 extra base hits, 15 of which were home runs. The last guy who had that kind of ratio was Kila Kaaihue, who once hit 11 doubles while homering 26 times in Double-A in 2008. It is hard to believe that Pena is just turning 29 years old as it seems as if he has been around since before the strike. Yet, he signed his major league contract with the Yankees at age 17 in 1999 and made his major league debut late in the 2002 season. If Pena had a heyday, it was from 2004 to 2006 in Cincinnati when he hit as many as 26 home runs and hit as high as .301 one season. Since that time, he has spent time in the organizations of the Nationals, Mets, Padres, the Atlantic League, and now the Diamondbacks.  In seven seasons of major league experience, Pena's slash line was .253/.307/.447, as he hit with power but was painfully impatient at the plate, often striking out five times as much as he walked in a season. In Triple-A, he has a .313/.373/.535 slash line in 491 plate appearances and his K/BB rate is slightly higher at 0.34. The Triple-A track record is there, but the major league track record is tough to ignore. Even tougher to ignore is the current power outage in Arizona's left field situation.

Arizona has 15 home runs as a team thus far, which is one of the better rates in the National League, but the left fielders have not helped with run production. The Diamondback left fielders have scored just eight runs, driven in five runs, and have four extra base hits in 63 plate appearances. A .283 batting average is nice, but a .302 OBP and .350 SLG% is tough to carry from a corner outfield position unless there is significant stolen base production from the group, which there is not. Using the MinorLeagueSplits revitalized by Kyle Boddy over at DrivelineMechanics, we find that Pena's MLE's when park-adjusted break out to .290/.344/.469 in 157 plate appearances with him being particularly deadly against lefties (.360/.429/.640). Brandon Boggs was not alone in holding Nelson Cruz down in 2008 as Marlon Byrd was also around to help in that platoon but a grouping of Gerardo Parra, Xavier Nady, and Willie Bloomquist are not entrenched enough to prohibit Pena from being given one more chance to shed his Quad-A label as Cruz before him.

The Reno Aces have him listed at 6'3" and 230 pounds, but that seems a bit on the low side from what I saw of Cactus League action on television back in March as he is a hulking figure in the outfield these days.  The man could be a perfect DH for an American League team struggling for power production from the right side and given the fact that Adam Kennedy and Felipe Lopez have hit clean-up, multiple times, for American League clubs already this season, there are at least two glaring opportunities that I can think of right away. Additionally, Pena has more home runs in Triple-A by himself than the entire Twins roster does at this point but there is not a clear-cut place for him to play there given the logjam the team already has in the outfield these days that has led to Michael Cuddyer trying to play second base. If the Diamondbacks cannot give him a chance in their outfield, perhaps an American League team can work out a minor league deal to bring Pena in as the price should be rather cheap.

Nelson Cruz finally got his opportunity at 28, Jack Cust got his opportunity at 28, and maybe Wily Mo Pena can get his chance at 29 to show that he still has a little left from what he showcased in the middle part of this past decade. Pena is worth the FAAB bid in your local NL league if you have enough reserve roster space to play out a waiting game. Plate discipline skills typically take 100 plate appearances to stabilize in a season but to see Pena with a 1.0 K/BB rate 40 plate appearances in is rather stunning, as his best rate at any time in his career, at any level, is 0.33. .375 BABIP's and .543 ISO's do not live forever, but Pena's power is legitimate and he just needs one more chance at the big league level to show what he has whether it be plodding around in left-field for Arizona or being acquired by an American League team desperate for power attempting to catch lightning in a bottle.

By the way, look for the next Top 100 prospect update on May 2. Given the fact little changes during spring training and the first week or so, I did not see the need to change anything John Sickels posted before he had to step aside. I will do an extensive post on May 2 showing how the players John ranked are doing so far and then publishing my own Top 100 list and plan to update that list the first Tuesday of each month throughout the minor league season.