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Wily Mo Pena: The Roster Implications

Nick Piecoro tweeted it best: "This is Wily Mo Pena's world and we're all just living in it."  Now, I don't want to get ahead of myself with praise for Pena - Wily Mo won't homer in 12% of his plate appearances.  It would be awesome, but it's not hard to figure out just how unlikely that is.  Additionally, it's hard to be comfortable with an 11:0 K:BB ratio in an eight-game sample.  But here's what I will say in Pena's favor: he can come off of the bench and give us a chance.  It might not be a huge chance, but it's just enough to scare the bejeesus out of an opposing manager and maybe induce a poor bullpen decision or favorable late-game match-up.  That's something that no other bat off of Arizona's bench has been capable of doing this year, and it probably isn't something that Arizona is going to be letting go if in a couple of weeks when interleague action ends.

Sure, he'll give us one of the worst outcomes possible over 30% of the time if his career averages are any indication, but he's had years in the big-leagues in which he's been solid with the bat - he posted wRC+ figures of 112 in 2004, 103 in '05, 110 in '06, and 98 in '07 before flaming out spectacularly in 2008.  Yes, he's cost his teams two entire wins compared to an average fielder throughout his career, but nobody's proposing that he plays in the field.  He's nothing aside from right-handed bench thunder, Arizona's very own mini-Travis Hafner.  However, if/when Pena sticks around after interleague play wraps up - which seems more and more likely with each home run he clobbers - what could that mean for the rest of the roster, and, just as importantly, what should that mean for the rest of the roster?

What could Pena's success mean for the roster?

Had Pena come up and struggled in the majors again, he would have been a strong bet to be DFA'd after the series with the A's was wrapped up in favor of a more versatile bench piece.  With Geoff Blum making rehab appearances in the minor-leagues, the team could have added Blum to take Pena's spot without needing to tap into the system's prospect depth, which should be used as prospects prove themselves ready for the big leagues, not as necessary bench filler.  However, with Pena showing some promise, the presence of Willie Bloomquist on the roster may actually have a positive repercussion on the team: Bloomquist's ability to play virtually any position means that the team could keep Pena on their bench to be a pure pinch-hitter, kind of like Sean Burroughs was but without the pure horribleness.

This, of course, means that someone other than Pena is going to have to be removed from the bench to make room for Blum, his balky knees, and his two-year contract (cue scattered groans).  It won't be Bloomquist, who is the only outfield reserve Arizona has with Xavier Nady spending most of his days at first base and coming off the bench and Ryan Roberts spending all of his time in the infield, as he should.  It also won't be Henry Blanco, for obvious reasons.  That leaves two candidates to be shipped off to make room for Blum: Nady and Melvin Mora.  Although Nady has had an occasional spurt of "clutchiness" here or there, he's in the midst of his third straight season of below replacement-level production, putting up -0.1 fWAR so far in 55 games of work.  Mora, as has been well-documented throughout this site, has been nothing short of abysmal, posting -0.5 fWAR and a 29 wRC+ in 41 games in action.

Since Blum plays the same position, plus a few others, as Mora, I'm going to guess that Mora is the choice to be DFA'd.  He can barely make it onto the field as it is, and is usually atrocious when he does enter a game.  However, that's not to say that Nady is safe on the D-backs roster.  This is where we get into...


What should Pena's success mean for the roster?

Take a quick perusal of the line-up.  The everyday group has solid lefty/righty balance, with southpaws Stephen Drew, Miguel MonteroJuan Miranda, and Gerardo Parra balancing out right-handed hitters Justin Upton, Chris Young, Ryan Roberts, and Kelly Johnson (who is a RHB for all intents and purposes with his splits).  That's the kind of balance you love to have in a line-up.  Now take a look at the bench.  Blanco - right-handed hitter.  Bloomquist - right-handed hitter.  Mora - right-handed hitter.  Pena - right-handed hitter.  Nady - right-handed hitter.  Sure, the switch-hitting Blum is much better as a left-handed hitter in his career (83 wRC+ vs. RHP, 63 wRC+ vs LHP), but he'll never be mistaken for someone who provides thunder off the bench.

Clearly, the team is in need of a left-handed bench bat, though not for lack of trying.  Russell Branyan flamed out early on, and Burroughs proved himself fully incapable of contributing.  Arizona could simply elect to acquire a new everyday left fielder and play Parra off the bench, but I don't see that being enough of an upgrade to be worth the investment.  What I would do - and what seems to make too much sense to not happen - is to dump the worst of those right-handed bench members in favor of a lefty from the minors with some thump.  As already detailed, Bloomquist and Pena are attached at the hip, Mora should already be gone, Blum has a two-year contract, and Blanco is going nowhere.

Yep, the odd man out, should Arizona seek bench balance, is Xavier Nady.  After all, he's really done nothing for us other than play a truly terrible backup first base with little power, no patience, and a mediocre batting average.  He was technically the most potent right-handed pinch-hit bat the team had prior to Pena's promotion (that's a sad statement to think about...), but with Pena aboard for the foreseeable future, it's hard to justify having a second defensively-limited right-handed bat.  Replace Nady with a truly potent left-handed bat that can come in and inspire that same "one swing of the bat" fear into opposing managers, and Arizona could cause late-game havok to opposing managers' bullpens.

Of course, Arizona needs to have a power-hitting left-handed bat in the minors.  There are only four bats (I went ahead and excluded Burroughs to keep things from being totally lulzy) in the upper-levels, Double-A and Triple-A, who could even remotely fit this description, and, well, you'll see how much I'm stretching the definition:

- Triple-A 1B/OF Brandon Allen - .295/.421/.545 in 73 games - .966 OPS

- Triple-A 1B/3B Andy Tracy - .248/.355/.482 in 42 games - .838 OPS

- Double-A 3B Ryan Wheeler - .287/.356/.452 in 74 games - .808 OPS

- Double-A OF Marc Krauss - .231/.328/.446 in 70 games - .774 OPS

Tracy has had a nice MiLB journeyman's career, but an .838 OPS in Reno's righty-heavy line-up ranks 11th on the team for players with at least ten games played.  Wheeler and Krauss both will remain in the minor leagues for the rest of 2011 in any reasonable scenario, as their numbers, while okay for the pitcher-friendly Southern League, certainly don't scream "big-league ready."  Add in the fact that they're both legitimate prospects who need regular plate appearances, and promoting either of them would be utterly moronic.

In fact, as soon as I noticed at how righty-heavy the D-backs' bench is, I knew exactly who I'd be clamoring for in this post.  With four homers in his last ten games and a 1.083 OPS in that span, it's once again time to Free Brandon Allen.  The 25-year-old slugger has been surpassed on the organization's depth chart as the first baseman of the future by Paul Goldschmidt, but that doesn't mean that we should simply banish Allen to the minors for all eternity.  Allen could probably play a more capable left field than Nady could if Young or Upton need a rest against a righty, would provide left-handed power off the bench, and Arizona wouldn't be risking the development of one of its top prospects by giving Allen sporadic at-bats off the bench.

The downside of the move is that it's an irreversible decision - DFA'ing Nady means that we'd have to use either Allen or another Triple-A replacement for that bench slot for the remainder of the year (I imagine someone would pick up Nady, though I could be wrong).  However, bats with a 79 wRC+ are a dime a dozen - heck, Cody Ransom has a career wRC+ of 85, and he can play all over the infield.  If Arizona is trying to make a run at the NL West this year, a bench of Pena, Allen, Blum, Bloomquist, and Blanco sounds much more dangerous to me than a bench of Pena, Nady, Blum, Bloomquist, and Blanco.