Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

SAY HELLO TO WILY MO

The Red Sox had a problem that most teams would love; too much pitching. The question was, what to do with David Wells, Matt Clement or Bronson Arroyo. Wells' age and Clement's price made them prohibitive trade targets. That left Arroyo, and off he went to the Reds, ending a three year reign as one of the Red Sox primary heart throbs. No doubt, today many young female Sox fans are quite saddened. First johnny, now Bronson.

But Arroyo was more than just a heart throb. He was also quite versatile, showing the ability to start or come on in relief, he was dependable and not injury prone, and he was a kid who had big game experience and wanted the ball on any given day. Goodbye and good luck, Bronson. And thanks for your contributions. I'm sorry to see you go. Twenty-nine-year-old pitchers with rubber arms are hard to come by. Arroyo was a perfect four or five pitcher. But apparently the Sox thought they'd seen his best.

The Sox claimed Arroyo off waivers from Pittsburgh before the 2003 season. In 126 major-league games, he's 33-33 with a 4.59 ERA. Last year he was 14-10 with a 4.51 ERA in a career-high 205 1/3 innings.

In return, the Sox got themselves a project. It could be a boom, or a bust.

Wily Mo Pena said he was surprised by his trade to the Red Sox. But he'll be more disappointed than surprised if he finds himself on on the bench instead of in the field.

"I just want to be on a team and play every day," the young slugger said.

After having played no more than 110 games in any of his three previous seasons with the Reds, last year Pena finally got the chance to play left field regularly, batting .254 with 19 homers and 51 RBIs. But four years into his big league career, the unpolished Dominican has just 850 at bats, hitting .248 with 51 homers and 134 RBI.

And once again, at least for this season, he'll likely find himself in a limited role - unless Trot Nixon suffers another injury. The right-hitting Pena will be Boston's fourth outfielder, platooning with the left-hitting Nixon against left-handed pitchers. It's a role he should fill nicely, having fared well against lefties in the past. Last year he hit .291 against lefties, 57 points higher than against righties.

The Sox seem to have a long-term plan in mind with the acquisition of Pena. He may be the heir apparent in right field when Nixon becomes a free agent after this season. What's more, Pena can also play center. However, two scouts say that Pena has added 30 pounds in muscle, and as a result has regressed defensively and doesn't run as well as he used to.

There's also the distinct possibility that if Mike Lowell continues to struggle at the plate, proving that last season was more than just an aberration, Pena could see time at first with Kevin Youkilis moving back to his natural position at third.

The Sox see Pena as a very raw talent with an excellent arm to go with tremendous power potential. They plan to nurture and harness that talent in the coming years, believing that Boston offers just the right environment to continue Pena's development.

"The best thing that happened to him was coming over here," David Ortiz said. "He can learn from all of us."

Particularly, the Sox are hoping that Pena will learn plate discipline and pitch selection.

"This guy has some sick power," Ortiz said. "This guy has some crazy power, man." In fact, Ortiz said the 6-foot-3, 245 pound Pena is even stronger than him. "I've never seen a guy hit a ball harder than that guy... No, not even [me]."

The 19 homers he hit in just 99 games last year are a clear indication of that strength. And in 2004, Pena hit 26 homers in just 110 games. Theo Epstein described Pena as a "physical freak."

"We were talking about hitting a lot during the WBC," Ortiz said of Pena. "He wants to learn. He's a hard worker, good kid."

He'll need to be a hard worker. Apparently there is still a lot Pena needs to learn, and plenty of time to be made up for in his rushed development.

The Reds had to keep Pena in the majors the past three seasons, or place him on waivers, after he ran out of options in 2002 at the age of 20. He was just 17 when he signed a five-year major league contract with the New York Yankees in April 1999.

"He hasn't had time to develop" in the minors, Epstein said. "He's still a really dangerous threat against left-handed pitching."

Pena struck out 116 times in 311 at bats last season - an incredible 37% of the time - while walking only 20 times. But at just 24, the Sox think he has tremendous potential. They see him as a burgeoning middle-of-the-order power hitter with 40-homer potential. Red Sox fans can tolerate, perhaps even love, a true power hitter who strikes out a lot. But a guy who strikes out frequently minus the power (i.e. Mark Belhorn), they will not.

However, Ortiz seems unfazed. "Wily Mo is learning. He's going to be a great player."

"When I was 24 the ability that he has right now I didn't have it and I was in the big leagues, just like him," Ortiz said. "Wait until you see him. He looks like a football player. He's huge. He's got legs like nobody I've ever seen."

There will be lots of work to do. Pena has a meager .303 career on-base percentage. That clearly flies in the face of the Red Sox philosophy of the past few years.

"Pena strikes out on a rate basis more than anyone else in the big leagues," Epstein said. "There is precedent for those (type) players developing a little bit more discipline, increasing their walk rate and becoming better all around hitters as they adjust to the big leagues."

Pena is signed to a one-year, $1.25 million contract for 2006, and can't be a free agent until after the 2008 season. The Sox have him in their control for the next three years at a low cost.

Arroyo is just the latest member of the 2004 World Series Champions to have departed. Just seventeen months later, only nine players from that team remain.

With Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and even Abe Alvarez in their system, the Sox felt comfortable about their pitching prosects in the coming years. But they have a decided lack of power within the system, which made this trade worth its risks.

As happy as he is about the arrival of Pena, Ortiz isn't happy about the departure of Arroyo, who was a very popular member of the Red Sox.

"I don't know, man. That's why I'm always going to look at this game as a business," Ortiz said. "The game is crazy, but that's how it goes."

It is a business, indeed. Players are rented, not owned. So don't fall in love with Wily Mo if he starts clearing the Monster with great regularity. Who knows how long he'll be around? Just ask Bronson arroyo. He never would've guessed.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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