This is the third installment of a position-by-position look at the 2008 Kansas City Royals.
When Tony Pena, Jr., was acquired by the Royals last March 23, about 10 days before the start of the 2007 season, the news was met with excitement for some, and exasperation for others.
The excitement stemmed from the prospect of someone new and different at shortstop for the Royals. Many Kansas City fans had long since grown weary of the steadily-declining numbers produced by former American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, and felt it was time for a change.
Berroa earned his rookie honor by going .287/.338/.451 with 92 runs scored, 17 home runs, 73 runs batted in, and a 101 OPS+ during Kansas City's 2003 season. However, what followed are seasons of .262/.208/.385 in 2004, then .270/.305/.375 in 2005, and finally .234/.259/.333 with an OPS+ of 52 in his last season as a starter in 2006. His .259 OBP that final season was the lowest among regulars in the A.L.
In came Pena, a new name from the Atlanta Braves' organization who received praise for his defensive abilities.
"He's an above-average Major League defender, fielding and throwing," said the Royals' Rene Francisco at the time of the trade. A member of Atlanta's organization during 1993-2006, Francisco added, "Defense is what got him to the big leagues."
Offensively, Pena's skills were still very much a question mark, but he was hitting .342 in Spring Training for Atlanta, and he had just hit a three-run home run against the Mets the day before the trade.
So, compared to Berroa's downhill trend, Pena seemed to be just what the Royals needed -- a younger player, with better range, and a good pedigree as the son of former Royals manager and 18-year Major League veteran Tony Pena.
The exasperation, however, came from the fans who took a closer look at Pena's offensive numbers. And what they found was that Kansas City had just acquired a slightly-better defensive shortstop, whose numbers over seven Minor League seasons looked an awful lot like Angel Berroa's.
Over the span of his Minor League career, Pena hit .252/.282/.332, although his numbers were trending upwards and culminated in a .282/.312/.359 season for the Braves' AAA affiliate in 2006. But Berroa registered averages of .263/.305/.384 over seven Major League campaigns. Both players have incredibly bad plate discipline, with Pena having drawn a total of 102 walks over his entire Minor League career, and Berroa taking even fewer (94) bases on balls during his time with the Royals.
Pena made quite an impression in his debut with the Royals, going 2-for-3 with two triples, two runs scored, and yes, even a walk, in a 7-1 win against the eventual World Champion Red Sox at Kauffman Stadium. But he ended April with a .197 batting average, and then went a team-record 244 plate appearances between May 5 and July 27 without a single walk. His season-ending numbers were .267/.284/.356 with 58 runs scored, 47 runs batted in, and seven triples, but only 10 bases on balls. Yes, that's 10 walks -- in 536 plate appearances! Ouch.
As the 2008 season nears, a big question is whether his offensive numbers will improve, or decline like Berroa's. Though he is projected as the starting shortstop once again, it is fair to say that new manager Trey Hillman will expect a better on-base percentage from Pena.
Listed behind Pena on the team's depth chart are veteran utilityman Esteban German, and 24-year old Angel Sanchez, who missed the 2007 after undergoing surgery on his right elbow. To read more about German, take a look at what was written about him in last week's third base preview. In his most recent full season, Sanchez batted .282/.339/.352 with 105 runs scored, 57 RBI, and 24 doubles for Class AA Wichita in 2006.
So, unless another trade is in the works prior to 2008, it looks as if Tony Pena will once again be the Royals' everyday shortstop. Of course, there's always Angel Berroa, biding his time in Omaha and just waiting for another opportunity with Kansas City.
I can just imagine the exasperated sighs coming from the mouths of Royals fans everywhere.