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.

Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks destroys another NL lineup as Cubs top Pirates

Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks destroys another NL lineup as Cubs top Pirates

Kyle Hendricks continued his systematic destruction of National League lineups on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates during a 3-0 victory that highlighted his Cy Young Award potential.

Hendricks, who leads the majors in ERA, sliced his number down to 2.09, throwing seven scoreless innings as the Cubs continued their march toward a division title and what they expect will be a deep run into October.

Hendricks (13-7) has grown from a nominal fifth starter into someone near the front of a playoff rotation, neutralizing entire lineups with his curveball and four-seam fastball — which make his changeup and two-seam fastball that much more effective — while turning opponents into very-good-hitting pitchers (sub-.600 OPS).

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On the one-year anniversary of Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter/onesie press conference at Dodger Stadium, Hendricks didn’t allow a hit until Gregory Polanco’s soft single to center field leading off the fifth inning.

Hendricks had faced the minimum through four innings and wound up throwing 99 pitches, 61 for strikes, giving up only two more hits and not allowing any Pirates to go past second base.

The Cubs (84-47) gave Hendricks — a pitcher already working with a quiet confidence and a specific game plan in mind — an early lead when Anthony Rizzo slammed a Chad Kuhl fastball off the small video panel above the right-field wall for a two-run homer in the first inning.

Whether or not Rizzo can catch up to Kris Bryant in the MVP race, Hendricks has to be among the leading Cy Young candidates, given his remarkable consistency (18 straight starts with three earned runs or less) and strong second-half push.

Why Jake Arrieta almost quit baseball — and what that means for Tommy La Stella

Why Jake Arrieta almost quit baseball — and what that means for Tommy La Stella

There were times Jake Arrieta felt like quitting baseball, wondering if this really was the best way to support his family as he bounced between the Baltimore Orioles and their Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va.

It wasn’t just his dream anymore. Arrieta had to think about a wife (Brittany), a young son (Cooper) and a daughter (Palmer) on the way. He had a business background at Texas Christian University, an inquisitive, engaging personality and enough confidence and connections to launch his next act.

The year after being Baltimore’s Opening Day starter, Arrieta found himself back in Triple-A by late April 2013, the fourth season he spent time on that level.

“We were at a point where I had other things that I could segue into and establish a career elsewhere,” Arrieta said Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of his no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, where the Cubs popped champagne bottles and partied in their onesies, showing the full force of their personalities. “Not that I wanted that to happen, but I didn’t want to continue to go through the things we were going through and moving from place to place in the minor leagues at 25, 26 years old.

“Baseball is something that I’ve loved to do since I was a little kid, but it’s not everything. I had to reevaluate some things. I knew I could always pitch this way, but there were times where it seemed like maybe I wasn’t going to get to that point.

“It’s just part of life that we had to deal with.”

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That big-picture perspective should help Tommy La Stella once he returns to the Wrigley Field clubhouse — possibly as soon as this week when the rosters expand for September — and goes into damage-control mode.

Arrieta has remained in frequent contact with La Stella since the reserve infielder/left-handed pinch-hitter refused to report to Triple-A Iowa in late July, moved back to his home in New Jersey, told ESPN he would consider retirement if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs and finally ended his holdout in the middle of August.

“I really care about Tommy,” Arrieta said. “He’s ready to kind of explain to the team what he was going through, because there’s a lot of confusion, rightfully so. But I take the baseball aspect completely out of it and I look at it from just a human-being perspective. I can relate to him on a lot of different levels.

“I know that there were things that he was going through and dealing with (that) we may not agree with and understand.

“But we don’t have to. There are certain things that he’s needed to deal with — and he’s at the point now where he’s willing and able to convey the message to the guys in this clubhouse.

“He can help us win games, so he’s a guy that we definitely need in this clubhouse. He’s ready to address the team — (and) move past it and get back to being a part of the team.”

Arrieta’s late-blooming career is a testament to willpower and perseverance, taking advantage of that change-of-scenery trade to the Cubs in the middle of the 2013 season and evolving into the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.

Even during a season where he has at times struggled to command his fastball and felt out of rhythm, Arrieta is still 16-5 with a 2.84 ERA for the best team in baseball, yet another sign of how much he has grown as a person and as a pitcher.

Going AWOL wasn’t the answer then — and it wasn’t a smart play for La Stella now — but at least Arrieta recognizes those anxieties and insecurities. Maybe that sense of leadership will help smooth over any awkwardness inside a laissez-faire clubhouse known for its late arrival times, loud music and Party Room.

“On a long drive — or when the game’s over, just sitting there thinking about where I see myself in the near future — it wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “I wasn’t going to just continue to pitch in the minor leagues for another five or six years. If I wasn’t good enough to get the job done, I would move on to somewhere (else) where I was.

“There’s a lot out there other than baseball. But, obviously, this is ultimately where I wanted to be. It was just a point in life where there was some uncertainty there. And you address it, you deal with it and you move past it.”

Why the Cubs skipped Tim Tebow's showcase

Why the Cubs skipped Tim Tebow's showcase

The Cubs have built the scouting-and-player-development machine Theo Epstein promised when he took over baseball operations at Wrigley Field, assembling the game’s best team with homegrown talent, shrewd trades and big-money free agents.

The Cubs will kick the tires on just about any idea that might make the organization incrementally better, which makes their absence from Tim Tebow’s showcase on Tuesday so telling.

The Cubs skipped Tebow’s workout on the University of Southern California campus, sources said, viewing it as a promotional stunt for the former NFL quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner. With all due respect, as Joe Maddon might say, whenever the manager quotes Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby character in “Talladega Nights.”

Tebow’s name recognition and high-powered representation (Creative Artists Agency) helped him reportedly draw scouts from 27 major-league clubs to watch him run the 60-yard dash, react in the outfield and take batting practice.

Tebow — who won two national championships at the University of Florida, works as an ESPN analyst and stays involved with faith-based charities — hasn’t played baseball since high school.

“I saw his swing on the video — it was a decent hack,” Maddon said. “At 29 years old, it’s not easy to pull off, but good for him. If he wants to give it a run, go for it.”