KISSIMMEE, Fla.—Carlos Pena may become the first regular designated hitter of the Houston Astros.
It would take some getting used to, both for the team and the player.
"I take so much pride in my glove," Pena said Wednesday. "I think that’s something people can overlook. I always tell myself no one takes groundballs the way I do at first base; no one has the same type of mentality."
The Astros, moving to the American League this year, have had a DH in only a handful of interleague and postseason games, and Pena has been a DH for only 45 games in a 12-year career. There is a good chance he will make it 46 in the season opener against the Texas Rangers on April 2. With 191 home runs over the last six seasons, the left-handed hitter fits the description of what Houston is looking for in a DH.
"I think the DH is a luxury," manager Bo Porter said. "When Jeff (general manager Luhnow) and I talked about a DH, we talked about a player who could actually go in and play a position. That’s a reason we targeted Carlos Pena—No. 1, he has experience as a DH. There’s a craft to it. Everybody can’t do it. What you don’t want is for a guy to just go up and pinch hit four times."
At age 34 and coming off a rough year with the Tampa Bay Rays in which he hit .197 and struck out 182 times, Pena might seem like an odd fit in the clubhouse of the young, low-budget Astros. But this is pretty close to home on several levels.
"This is my kind of environment," he said. "We’ve got a lot of young kids who don’t take things for granted. I love to see that. When everything is set in your life, there is a tendency to take it for granted. I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve got it; I want to feel every single day like: ‘Thank you, God, for this uni today."’
That’s the way Pena felt in 2006 when he was released by the Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox within a period of seven months. The Rays were going to send him to the minors to start the 2007 season when an injury opened a roster spot. Pena would hit 46 home runs that year, still a Rays record. He won a Gold Glove in their pennant-winning season of 2008, then shared the 2009 AL home run championship despite missing the final 25 games with a broken hand.
Now he is back in the position of having to prove he can still get around on a quality fastball. He does not want to be results-oriented in the exhibition season which starts Saturday.
"My main purpose is to have some good at bats, to groove some balls, to square some balls up and get that rhythm and timing going," he said. "I’ve noticed that when I focus on what I’ve got in front of me, then everything else kind of falls into place. So if I hit a home run, ‘Oh, OK,’ but I know all I was trying to do was see the ball and square it up."
And he will continue to take ground balls with the same level of concentration, even if he plays first base only occasionally.
"Of course I want to play first every single day. I love fielding. I want to do it as long as I can," he said. "However, I’m part of this ball club and I just want to be ready for whatever our manager decides is the way to use me."
NOTES: A 50-year-old Roger Clemens said he was throwing at "about 70 percent" to Astros regulars in a batting practice session Wednesday. "I’m thankful that I’ve taken great care of my body for the most part, and if my sister didn’t make all those cookies and they didn’t have Starbucks, I’d probably be in real game shape right now," said Clemens, an Astros special consultant ... Lucas Harrell will face the Philadelphia Phillies in the Astros’ exhibition opener at Clearwater on Saturday. Then it will be Bud Norris against the New York Mets on Sunday, Philip Humber against the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, Erik Bedard and Jordan Lyles in split-squad starts on Tuesday, and Alex White on Wednesday.