HOUSTON—The Houston Astros wanted to add power to their lineup and a veteran presence to their young team.
They think they got both by signing Carlos Pena on Monday.
"We believe he is exactly the kind of player we need in this organization at this time," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We think that he’s going to be a big contributor for us on the field as well as in the clubhouse next year."
Pena will be the Astros’ designated hitter, addressing a key need as they prepare for their first season in the American League. But Luhnow said Pena could also play first base.
"I think he provides some flexibility because he’s a left-handed batter who can play a good first base defensively," Luhnow said. "So that gives you some options ... he can still play very good first base, and we expect to see him at first base a little bit."
The 34-year-old Pena, who spent last season in his second stint with Tampa Bay, hit .197 with 19 home runs and 61 RBIs in 2012. Terms of the one-year deal were not released.
He has hit below .200 in two of the past three seasons and struck out a career-high 182 times last season. But he also draws a lot of walks—he had 87 last season—and has continued to drive in runs despite his dipping averages.
"There are so many things that I have to improve," he said. "There are so many things that I’ve been so good at, and other things that I’ve been challenged with. The game has changed so you adapt and make adjustments ... I’m always learning."
He said that he had other offers, but felt as if Houston was the right fit for him.
"Everything seems so fresh so I wanted to be part of that new identity," he said. "Hopefully as we start creating our new identity and shaping up our culture, I want to make sure that I do everything I can to start steering it in the right direction."
Pena had the best seasons of his career in his first stint with the Rays from 2007-2010 when he had at least 100 RBIs in three of those four seasons. His most productive year came in his first with the team when he hit 46 homers with 121 RBIs, both career highs.
Pena started his career with the Rangers, and has hit 277 homers with 791 RBIs in a 12-year career that also had stops in Oakland, Detroit, Boston and with the Cubs. He has history with new Houston manager Bo Porter, having played with Porter in spring training when he was in the Rangers minor league system.
He’s undaunted by the fact that Houston has lost more than 100 games in each of the past two seasons and isn’t expected to contend in its move to the powerful AL West next season.
Pena was in a similar situation in Tampa Bay. They Rays had lost 95 and 101 games respectively in the two seasons before he joined the team. They lost 96 in his first season there in 2007 before winning 97 games the next season and reaching the World Series.
"It actually was inviting to me," he said of joining a rebuilding team. "I’ve been on teams where we were thought to be the worst in baseball at one point and very quickly, sooner than anyone expected, we were in a World Series. So I’ve seen things change very quickly. ... I like the challenge that it presents and the potential for growth."
Some had speculated that the signing of Pena would eliminate the possibility of the Astros bringing back slugger Lance Berkman. Luhnow said that wasn’t the case.
"We need to do everything we can to improve this team," Luhnow said. "And if we get to a point where Lance is interested in playing and we find that we can utilize him, which we obviously can if he’s healthy, then we’ll have a conversation with him."