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.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."