Chicago Cubs

Carlos Pena feels right at home with Cubs

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Carlos Pena feels right at home with Cubs

Saturday, March 5, 2011
2:39 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Carlos Pena grabs the iPod dock from a clubhouse attendant and puts on some dance music. Hes surrounded by teammates on a practice field as he explains who should get priority during a pop-up drill. He helps organize a players-only meeting to address the tension simmering from a dugout fight.

It didnt take long for the new Cubs first baseman to become a visible leader. It also wasnt that long ago where he was an island unto himself.

So much was expected of Pena, the 10th overall pick in the 1998 draft. But by 2005 he had already been traded twice, and marginalized on a Tigers team that had lost 119 games only two years earlier.

A Detroit source remembers one Pena quote in particular from that season. It came around the time of his 27th birthday. It sums up a cerebral player struggling to handle failure.

Where the dry desert ends, Pena said, green grass grows.

Pena would be shipped back to Triple-A Toledo, where manager Larry Parrish and hitting coach Leon Bull Durham tried to shut down his overactive mind. Pena was promoted in mid-August and went on a tear, hitting .286 with 15 homers and 30 RBI in 38 games through the end of the season.

Even when things were going good again, Pena refused to speak to the media during that hot streak. Yet he is now so approachable and comfortable with those responsibilities as a team spokesman.

They said it was so important for me to have tunnel focus, not to allow myself to (believe all the hype), Pena recalled. I took it to heart. You go in there and get everything done and make it as raw as you possibly can. Meaning go play baseball and go home. Nothing (else) exists.

Good chemistry

Pena is smart enough to know that there is a world beyond baseball, and doesnt pretend to have everything figured out. After all, he was released by the Tigers and Yankees before bouncing to the Red Sox in 2006.

Carlos is an amazing ballplayer and hes an amazing person, said Cubs pitcher Matt Garza, a teammate for three years in Tampa Bay. He thrives in any situation. He was almost out of baseball (and) out of nowhere (was the American Leagues Comeback Player of the Year in 2007).

Everything clicked that season. Pena generated 46 homers and 121 RBI, finally establishing himself after spending parts of five of the previous six years on the Triple-A level.

So Pena is used to introducing himself and making new friends. He is on his seventh professional team. He started at Wright State University before transferring to Northeastern University, where he studied engineering.

But nothing will compare to the shock of his family moving from the Dominican Republic to Haverhill, Mass., when he was 12 years old. He hopes that growing up near Boston and playing at Fenway Park has prepared him for Wrigley Fields fishbowl existence.

After Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez had to be separated in the dugout, Pena did not think: What did I get myself into?
I like the chemistry that we have here, even after (what) happened a couple days ago, Pena said. You look around, nothing has happened.

Its like Ok, cool, lets go play Nintendo now. Like when we were kids. You get into a fight and an hour later youre playing freaking Super Mario Brothers together. I like that we can have a disagreement and 15 minutes later go back to being friends. This is awesome. Thats chemistry.
Pillow contract

Cubs infielder Jeff Baker, another Scott Boras client, sort of smiled and shook his head at the mention of a pillow contract. Thats what baseballs most powerful agent called the one-year, 10 million deal he negotiated for Pena at the winter meetings.

Still, Pena does not come across as the ultimate mercenary.

'Los gets the respect of every one of his teammates, Baker said. Hes played in the World Series with Tampa. Hes also been through a lot of trials and tribulations in his career. Theres not too much he hasnt seen.

Everyone respects what hes done and the way he carries himself. When he speaks up and has something to say, guys are going to listen.

As a Gold Glove first baseman, Pena recently went to manager Mike Quade and asked if he could make a few suggestions to Tyler Colvin, a second-year player working out at a new position.

Look pal, you know way more about this position than I do, Quade responded. Im asking you: Please. And youve got a kid here whos a sponge and will listen and learn from you.

Pena mentioned a few details, explaining when you can cheat and gain a couple steps charging on a bunt. The hope is the Colvin becomes more fluid there, in case Pena gets injured and because the Cubs dont have an obvious first baseman of the future waiting in their minor-league system.

Pena will turn 33 in May and wants to use this as a platform toward a multi-year contract. And if he puts together a good season (and raises his .196 average from 2010), the Cubs figure to be very interested, even with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder ready to potentially hit the market.

Pena is a good citizen, the image the Cubs would like to project. Hes left-handed, bilingual and confident that he can conquer a big market. For now, he just hopes his team plays together, free and easy, exactly what he had trouble being years ago.

I want us to be loose. I want us to enjoy ourselves, Pena said. That way our talent really expresses itself.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.