In 1993, Lou Gorman chose Christopher Trotman Nixon, an 18-year-old left handed hitter, with the Red Sox’s first round pick (and seventh overall). Nixon signed with the team that same summer; this August marks his 13th year with the organization. For the last eight years, he’s been the team’s regular right fielder. When Trot went down with a strained right bicep on July 30, most of Red Sox Nation groaned: the last thing the team needed was an injury to one of its catalysts. Instead of Wily Mo Pena backing up Nixon, now the team would have Gabe Kapler backing up Wily Mo…and how could that be a good thing?
It’s true that, in an abstract world, having Gabe Kapler third on the depth chart instead of second would be nice. The problem is that we don’t live in an abstract world. And as Wily Mo has shown over the past week, there are a lot of good reasons he should be the regular right fielder even when Nixon comes back. This month, Pena has 5 home runs and 10 RBIs. (Manny has 3 homers and 9 RBIS, Papi has 4 and 5.) Even after a horrendous start to August — before Saturday’s game, Pena’s batting average for the month was .205 — his August OPS (.894) was higher than Trot’s for the season (.822). Look at the season as a whole and it’s not even close: WMP’s slugging percentage is more than 100 points higher than Nixon’s (.549 to .426), his OPS not much less than that (.917 to .822).
As I wrote in Feeding the Monster, last year Kevin Millar demonstrated the extent to which players can hold a team hostage. Even while vying for the position as the worst everyday player in the American League, Millar made it clear that he’d piss and moan if Francona sat him. Towards the end of the year, when he was finally platooning at first, Millar anonymously badmouthed Curt Schilling in the press. Later, he made up inane t-shirts that read “Fuck Everyone”; somehow, that slogan didn’t catch on the way “Cowboy Up” did. (The back of the shirts read, “2005 Sox: All We Have Is Each Other,” which only made sense if by “have” Millar meant “have knives in each other’s backs.”)
Nixon is much too classy (and talented) a guy to pull that kind of crap. And he deserves a lot of respect. He’s a loyal player, he works hard, and he’s put up some impressive numbers in his career. From 2001 to 2003, he averaged 26 home runs a year; in 2003, he pushed his average above .300 and had an OPS of .975, good for fourth in the league. (He trailed only Manny, A-Rod, and Carlos Delgado.) As good as that is, there’s a decent chance Wily Mo could top it. He’s only 24-years old. His power is awe-inspiring; as Alex Speier pointed out in last week’s Union Leader, Pena can launch balls even when he gets his bat sawed off. In the past two weeks, he’s hit four home runs of more than 430 feet, and one more that nearly decapitated a fan sitting on the Green Monster. (Thanks to gator92 for the hit-chart link.) Unlike Manny, who gets his incredible power from his nearly perfect balance, Wily Mo’s power is oftentimes in spite of his balance. If he ever developed a stroke like Manny’s, he’d be able to hit balls into the Citgo sign.
Still, the most likely scenario upon Trot’s return is that he’ll be back as the Sox’s regular right fielder, with Wily Mo getting the lion’s share of starts when there’s a lefty on the mound. Trot’s a veteran and he’s in the walk year of his contract. He’s also the original Dirt Dog: the pine tar on the helmet, getting thrown out of games while on the disabled list, etc.
That would be a shame, and not just because WMP has a .705 slugging percentage against righties. The future is now, and his name is Wilfredo Modesto Pena.*#
One more note to the WMP saga. The baseball season is a long one. Playoff spots are won over months, not weeks, and trades (and signings) should be evaluated over years, not months. When Bronson Arroyo began the season on a tear — both on the mound and at the plate — and the Red Sox’s pitching imploded, there was plenty of moaning about what a mistake the Red Sox’s front office had made. (One half-season even convinced some writers who had been in favor of the trade when it was made to come down against it. And yes, I’m looking at you, Shaughnessy.) Let’s examine this again when the season’s over. And then again when next season’s over. And then again when the 2008 season is over, because it’s only at that point that Pena will be eligible for free agency.
* Before I get a bunch of emails and comments about small sample sizes and how a couple of good weeks can make someone like Todd Walker look like Babe Ruth, let’s remember that Pena has been heralded for his power for as long as he’s been in baseball. The knock on him has been that he has bad plate discipline, and he does still strike out a lot. But he’s clearly been learning, and the fact that David Ortiz has taken him under his wing can only be a good thing.
# Pena’s full name actually appears to be Wily Modesto Pena, but Joe Castiglione called him Wilfredo Modesto on Saturday, and that’s too good not to use.