Fresh start is Peņa's biggest potential
CLEVELAND -- These are frustrating times for Wily Mo Peña and the people around him.
You don't have to agree with why Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein dealt Bronson Arroyo for him during spring training of 2006, but at least try to understand why. Peña is a guy a lot of people thought could become a righthanded David Ortiz. The Sox took a chance. They made a leap of faith that Peña would emerge.
He hasn't, and his days in Boston might be numbered. But there are those who still believe in him.
"He can be even better than me," said Ortiz yesterday. "He is one of the strongest people I've ever been around. With Wily Mo it's just playing time. With his hitting it's just timing. That's all it is. People say he can't hit the breaking ball. Well, I couldn't hit the breaking ball either. I learned to hit it. But I learned to hit it because I got the opportunity. Wily Mo hasn't had the opportunity."
The booing he's received from Sox fans has bothered the behemoth.
Ortiz has tried to comfort him and has told him, "They just want you to do good, man." Peña said Kevin Youkilis told him one day, "Why are they booing you? You go out and try your best every day. You give it everything you have. Why do they boo you?"
Peña won't be getting the 400 at-bats he hoped for this season. He is currently a disaster at the plate. His timing is so far off, he looks overmatched against hard throwers and finesse guys alike.
"When we're home I go into the cage and hit nothing but breaking balls and sliders," Peña said. "I spend three days a week doing nothing but that. But on the road we can't get to the cage because that's for the home team, so I see BP and all you see in BP is fastballs. It's hard. I just want to go out there and help the team win. I want to play every day and I think I proved when I was in Cincinnati [and] I hit 26 home runs in less than 400 at-bats , that I can be a power hitter. But if I don't get the chance . . ."
His voice trailed off.
He's 25 and he came to the majors at 20. His hitting coach at Single and Double A was former Sox designated hitter Mike Easler, who is now the hitting coach with the talented Las Vegas 51s, the Triple A affiliate of the Dodgers.
"That kid is a star waiting to happen," said Easler. "When I had him as a kid, he was making great progress. We worked on things every day. Every day. I did endless numbers of drills with him to improve his ability to hit a breaking pitch.
"He's a kid you have to work with all the time to get his swing right. I watch him on TV sometimes when I get the chance and I can see that he's going out on his front side too quickly. His mechanics are way off. His power is to right and right-center and that's where he should be hitting the baseball. His bat is behind his head . . . he's all off."
Easler said Peña "should do whatever Manny Ramírez and Alex Rodriguez do. Whatever it is they do, Wily Mo is in that mode of hitter. I remember when I heard Wily Mo was going to Boston I thought what a great place because he'll watch and learn from Manny, who I think is the greatest righthanded hitter. Because that's what Wily Mo should be."
Ortiz said he doesn't spend too much time trying to lift Peña's spirits because "he's gonna be OK. He works hard, this kid. Nobody can say anything different about him. I see his talent. Everybody in this room sees it. Somebody's got to let him play sometime. That's all it is."
Ortiz also said you can take BP with breaking balls until the cows come home and "you won't have the same experience as you have when you're in the game. His swing is very mechanical. There's no way you can figure it all out when you don't play that much. I went through the same thing in Minnesota for a while.
"I've been out for a few days with this shoulder injury and I'm coming back tonight. I already feel like I'm lost at the plate when I'm taking BP. Imagine if you get one at-bat in 10 days."
The upside for Peña is that he's young enough to appeal to a team that will play him regularly. Peña said he has not requested a trade, but he knows what might be ahead for him and if it means he'll play, he's OK with it.
"I like it here, but I want to play," Peña said.
Contrary to what people think, Peña said, he works hard on his defense. He said he practices in the outfield every day. He made a very good catch against the left-field wall Tuesday night to rob Casey Blake of extra bases and he realized "that was a good play because it was a 1-0 game and we needed to have that catch. That made me feel good.
"But I work hard in the field. One day I work in left, another day in center, another day in right, and I rotate. I'd love to play some first base. I do in the Dominican in winter ball."
Peña seems to do all the right things. He still plays winter ball, which is vital to any young player's success. He takes extra BP. He works on his defense. But this season his hard work has not paid off. The Sox hoped to utilize him more but as time has passed and with J.D. Drew's own hitting woes, the team is currently looking to acquire a veteran bat.
The Sox are trying to deal Peña to a team that believes it can turn him into the next Ortiz. Every hitting coach feels he can fix someone who's struggling. Easler always felt he was making progress with Peña.
"He reminds me a little bit of [Dodgers outfielder] Matt Kemp," said Easler. "Matt is a multitooled player with speed and a good outfielder, but he had trouble hitting the breaking ball. We worked on it every day when he was here [in Vegas] and now I see the kid having great success and I'm proud of that.
"What I tell the Wily Mos and the Matt Kemps is, 'Don't be afraid to get beat with a fastball. You've got to stay back and take a longer look.' In some ways it's more psychological than mechanical. I do a slash/bunt drill, which helps hitters stay back. It worked for Matt. I used to do it with Wily Mo.
"From what I remember of Wily Mo and what I see of him on TV when I watch, this kid can still be pretty special. It would be great to see that happen for him because he's a good kid and he just wants to do well. As a hitting coach he'd be a hitter I'd be excited to work with and I felt that way when I had him."
Peña feels he's under siege sometimes. He hears the negative talk. Hears the snickers.
"Someday, I'm telling you," said Ortiz, "he's gonna change your mind."
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.