If Pena or Aybar Struggle, Could Blalock Come to the Rays Rescue?
Bill Koustroun/AP Coming into the 2010 Spring Training season, the Tampa Bay Rays were optimistic that First Baseman Carlos Pena was going to come into camp perfectly healthy and ready to lead by example for this young Rays team. And all eyes have been on Pena ever since he first told the Tampa Bay media members even before this 2010 Spring Training camp began that he feels healthy and that his two fingers broken when he was plucked by a C C Sabathia fastball in late 2009 were completely healed and the entire situation is totally forgotten.
Then early on in this 2010 Spring camp, the Rays announced that First Baseman/Utility guru Willy Aybar sustained a wrist problem during this while playing in the Dominican Winter League, and lingering injury has put Aybar a bit behind the rest of the Rays squad this Spring. To some around the Rays Republic, this immediately sent up a few red flags concerned about Aybar’s ability to be an effective back-up to Pena and Third Baseman Evan Longoria if his wrist injury turned out to be more a nightmare than a simple sprain.
And when the Rays made an surprising move and signed Free Agent Hank Blalock, who played a majority of his time at First Base for the Texas Rangers in 2009 to a pretty complex and “convoluted” ( per Andrew Friedman) contract that now smells more and more like a “sure-thing” insurance policy heading into the middle of the Rays Spring schedule. But while the Rays were enjoying winning 9-straight games, it seemed like the Rays front office and Coaching staff was not in the least bit worried about Aybar not getting his first swings in a game until this week, or concerned with Pena’s early Spring struggles as he has now gone 0-18 with only one run scored to begin the 2010 Grapefruit season.
And then last week the Rays signed former Cuban National Team member Leslie Anderson who can play all three outfield positions and also First Base to a 4-year contract and the team has been adamant that they want to get him in a uniform as soon as possible. Some might say the Blalock signing is a coincidence, but the signing also a Anderson might signal something might be wrong and the silent treatment is being employed throughout the Rays clubhouse. I guess only time will tell what is really going on with Pena and Aybar this Spring.
And with Blalock just seeing his first Spring 2010 action this past Saturday against the Florida Marlins and going 0-2 with a walk and a strikeout, it appear on the surface that Pena and Blalock both have that mysterious .000 average going for them right now, but the reality is that Pena is swinging hard in the batting cages before the games. And maybe he is concentrating too much on his swing and it is transformed into Pena shooting blanks right now in Rays game situations. And with Aybar and Blalock just beginning to get their hacks at the plate, and the next week might speak volumes as to who starts ,or gets the most at bats this Spring.
And with two of the three Rays usual First Base candidates nursing off season trials and tribulations, it is only a matter of time before we find out if there is additional problems at bay, or if Blalock was actually brought here to maybe supplant Aybar as the Rays uber-utility guy since Blalock can effectively play both corner positions. And Blalock might not have put up some impressive offensive numbers ( .234, 25 HR 66 RBI) the last season with the Rangers, but his overall MLB pedigree ( 2 All Star nods) reads like a great sleeper addition to the ball club….on paper.
Since Blalock has a unique Rays contract that basically give him the final decision/option to decide if staying here with the Rays is a good thing, or bad, that might also speak volumes as to the Rays cautious level of uncertainty concerning both the health of Pena and Aybar heading into the last week of the Grapefruit season. The Blalock move puzzled me at first, but more and more I am seeing it is a great insurance policy with power by getting a guy who could start, or be an effective back-up DH if either Pena or Aybar go down with additional time on the disable list in 2010, or a viable option if Burrell sinks deeper in the quicksand with a slow start to the regular season.
And sure, Ben Zobrist can also play First and Third Base, but Zobrist has been used sparingly at First Base, even during Pen’a injury time in 2009, and might be a significant drop in the defense right now at First Base compared to Blalock who only had 6 errors in over 567 chances in 2009. And you can expect the question marks to get even bigger hanging over First Base with every game that Pena puts up a goose egg, or doesn’t hit the ball solidly at the plate. Sometimes the physical injuries can be healed, but the mental impression of the injury takes some additional plate appearances, or hitting attempts before the mind also thinks you are ready to hit again effectively.
And Pena is a total team player. If for some reason, Pena sees something harmful in his swing or plate demeanor towards the last week of Spring Training, you can bet Pena will be open and honest to anything the Rays might want to do to get him back on track again. And sometimes slumps happen to every team’s All Stars and Silver Slugger winners. All you have to do is look back at the horrific beginning to 2009 that happened to Boston DH David Ortiz following his wrist ailments to know that sometimes the body is willing, but the balls doesn’t seem to be going anywhere effective.
And hopefully that is what is going on right now in the Pena’s situation. Maybe his timing is not where he wants it to be and his eye-hand coordination is off a tick or two. That can produce some major contact problems, but Pena also is not striking out in bunches this Spring, so it might just be simple adjustments and Pena maybe watching video of his swing mechanics the next couple of game before he comes back with a bang for the Rays.
But it is great that the Rays have made some consolation arrangements just in case something else might be derailing either Aybar or Pena for any amount of time this season. But the Spring clock is ticking louder on Blalock and with him having the final decision on his name being maybe placed upon the Rays roster, it might be time for both Aybar and Pena to show solid contact at the plate and relieve some of the Rays front office and staff from holding their breath this Spring and becoming Rays blue in the face.
I seriously would not like to see the Rays take the field in their 2010 Opening Game against division foe Baltimore without Pena on the field. But the reality of the situation might be that the Rays just have to collectively take a step back with both players, and maybe give Blalock a few more at bats while Aybar and Pena work in the cages with Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton and get some more confidence in themselves.
Pena is entering his last contract year with the Rays, and unlike the mysterious Crawford situation, I can see the Rays working with Pena to try and keep a guy who is a cornerstone of this franchise with his great power and his leadership on this Rays roster for a few more years. But right now there are big question marks rising every day over near that first base bag, and the Rays need to squash those questions and doubts in the bud as soon as possible.
If there is something wrong with either Aybar or Pena, even a small problem, then the Rays need to take a step backwards and work towards taking two steps forward later this Spring. With three guys with Major League Baseball experience at first base right now straddling the line and bag for the Rays something has to give. If Pena and Aybar are healthy and mentally clicking to begin the season, the parting of Blalock might not be a huge thing.
But if there is the hint of the lingering situation, Blalock might be the ultimate sleeper signing for the Rays this season. Clock is ticking, and soon Pena and Aybar must get on their horse and ride, or the former Ranger Blalock might be the guy wearing the big white hat for the Rays.