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Because of a major league contract, Wily Mo Pena will be in the majors next season–whether he’s ready or not

By Alan Schwarz
April 5, 2002

Wily Mo Pena
Photo: Morris Fostoff
SARASOTA, Fla.–The Reds are happy with Wily Mo Pena’s development. This moose of a slugger, standing 6-foot-3 with much of his 215-and-counting pounds concentrated in his beefy arms, just turned 20 and was one of the most enticing five-tool prospects in the minors last year, hitting 26 homers and stealing 26 bases in low Class A and showing potential for considerably more. They love his talent. They love his attitude.

They ask for just one more thing: Hurry up.

Pena is one of the dozen or so minor leaguers who, upon turning professional, asked for and received major league contracts (see chart) that bring them far more than extra meal money. The deals start the ticking of an unforgiving clock that decides when they must graduate to the major leagues, often too early. If they need more work on breaking pitches, tough. If they need better angles on fly balls, they’ll have to learn in the majors, which can be quite difficult from the dugout bench as the real major leaguers actually play.

Pena’s deal, signed with the Yankees in April 1999 but still in effect after his trade to Cincinnati last March, gave him four years in which he could be optioned to the minor leagues before having to stick in the bigs or be exposed to waivers, which would whisk him from Cincinnati faster than his homers scream out of the yard. One year removed from the Midwest League, this season is Pena’s last to work on his batting eye, his baserunning, his knowledge of baseball’s subtleties. He’ll be in a Reds uniform next year, ready or not.

"You’d like to not have the added pressure," Cincinnati manager Bob Boone says. "When you’re ready to play in the big leagues, you play in the big leagues. That’s my position on that. But it is what it is."

One scout rates Pena’s power as greater than that of Adam Dunn, the Reds prodigy who blasted 19 homers in two months last year as a rookie and could hit 40-50 a year, and Ken Griffey, who when healthy does that with regularity. A Dunn-Griffey-Pena outfield could give the Reds the most powerful trio in the major leagues–and if all goes right, dreaminess be damned, perhaps ever.

But when you’re talking about a guy who struck out 177 times last year against Midwest League pitchers just learning their breaking balls, that dream is quickly rousted by reality. The major league deal was great for Pena’s meal money, but a year from now it’s Pena who could be eaten for lunch.

The way he looks at it, Gary Hughes, the Reds’ director of professional scouting, sees little chance of disaster. Even if Pena is not ready for the majors next April, Hughes says, "He’s got enough tools–he can play center field and do certain things as the 25th man on the roster." This sacrifice is sometimes made for major league Rule 5 draft picks, who stick with the big club by becoming defensive replacements and pinch-runners for a year while getting 100 at-bats, tops.

But the idea that a premium prospect’s development could be stunted because of a contract demanded as a teenager has troublesome ramifications. Hughes remembers how Todd Van Poppel, the high school pitching phenom signed to a major league deal by the Athletics in 1990, developed backwards. "You start higher than you should and then you get moved up because you have to be, rather than because you should be," he says. Now with the Rangers, Van Poppel became a productive big league reliever only in the past few years.

Then again, the Reds themselves saw Dunn arrive in the big leagues and thrive last July after spending the previous year in Dayton posting similar statistics to Pena. (The difference, a large one, is that Dunn could track breaking pitches and had a far better idea of the strike zone.) Still, Pena’s power is too tantalizing to count out. Stories persist of him hitting balls over batter’s eyes wherever he plays, and he even outshone Griffey in a torrid BP display before an exhibition game in Dayton. He will start this season at Double-A Chattanooga.

"His tools are almost off the chart . . . at the Hall of Fame, great, great player level," Boone raves. "But he’s got a lot of learning about baseball to do. He strikes out too much. He doesn’t have good plate awareness, being out of strong hitting position. He’s just a baby."

Pena hit .264-26-113 at Dayton last year, leading the Midwest League in RBIs and becoming just one of three minor leaguers to steal 25 bases and hit 25 home runs. His 177 whiffs also led the league, against just 33 walks. This doesn’t necessarily portend doom. Pena could become Sammy Sosa, to whom he is often compared, who had a 123-21 ratio in low Class A in the Rangers system back in 1987. Then again, when minor league history is littered with spectacular sluggers who never learned plate discipline–Earl Cunningham, the Cubs prospect in the early ’90s who had a 145-10 ratio in the same Midwest League, for example–concerns are more than fair.

Sure enough, in an intrasquad game early this spring, Pena looked hopeless on three straight split-finger fastballs from veteran Jose Rijo. Though he speaks little English, he says through teammate/interpreter Wilton Guerrero that he isn’t worried about having just one season left in the minors.

"I have to watch the ball more carefully," Pena says. "I want to have a good year like last year, but I have to work on breaking pitches . . . I don’t have pressure because all the time I knew that I would play in the majors. I knew I would work hard enough to make it."

Like his first glimpse of the Grand Canyon or Christie Brinkley, Hughes remembers with giddy awe the first time he laid eyes on Wily Mo Pena. Hughes was working for the Rockies in early 1999 and attended a workout with the Cubs in Mesa, Ariz. "The best workout I ever saw for an amateur–in 30-some-odd years, I’ve never seen a guy put on that kind of a show," Hughes says. "Power, speed, arm strength, and he played hard.

"I wanted to make an offer in the $4 million range. (Rockies owner) Jerry McMorris said we were just building an academy in the Dominican. My response was this is why we build academies–to sign guys like this."

Actually, one club already had. Pena originally signed with the Mets for $15,000 in July 1998 at age 16, but MLB questioned the authenticity of the signature of his father, Modesto (after whom Pena’s middle name is adapted), and made Pena a free agent.

Pena’s legend growing by the day, the Yankees swooped in and, in part because they dangled a major league deal with its perks and prestige, signed Pena in April 1999 for about 250 times what the Mets gave him. Yankees vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman described the major league contract as a way to distribute the $3.7 million over several years rather than pay it all up front, and says he had little doubt Pena would make it to New York after four minor league seasons.

"We’d studied the top Latin outfielders, guys like Sosa and Juan Gonzalez, and the lion’s share made it in that time frame," Newman says. Pena did little to justify the deal by hitting just .205 with 91 strikeouts in 249 at-bats at Class A Greensboro in 2000 before being demoted to short-season Staten Island. But while his bat wasn’t developing, his body was: He signed at 180 pounds but was adding bulk by the day, wolfing down mounds of rice and beans and enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner at the Newmans’ house. "We had hors-d’oeuvres for six," Newman says, "and they didn’t last six minutes."

"He had the ultimate projectable body," Newman says. Not just the frame but his immense hands, a pair of mitts that could envelop a small toaster. Newman considered Pena’s power the best he had seen in 14 years in the Yankees organization and believed the other tools would develop quickly enough. He says Pena’s trade to Cincinnati the following March–for third baseman Drew Henson and outfielder Michael Coleman–was not prompted by any ticking clock.

That clock is ticking, though, and not just for Pena but for another pair of Reds, infielder David Espinosa and catcher Dane Sardinha. Cincinnati signed Espinosa, a high schooler from Miami, and Sardinha, a college prospect out of Pepperdine, to long-term major league deals after taking them high in the 2000 draft.

The deals allowed a cash-strapped organization to meet the players’ monetary demands by spreading it over many years. (Minor league deals forbid this.) Sardinha is 23 and defensively ready for the majors despite playing at high Class A last year, so he should be ready in time. Espinosa, 20, hit .262 with 48 errors at Dayton in 2001 but figures his bosses know best: "The Reds think I can make it in the time I have," he says. "They’re the ones who scouted me in high school."

Still, the club spent last year and will spend this season with effectively a 37-man roster. Though they didn’t lose a player in last year’s Rule 5 draft, having to protect three players before their time is asking for trouble.

The risk on their development is always present, as well, particularly after the Van Poppel debacle. Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for baseball operations, makes it a point to discourage teams from committing too much money to amateurs. Yet he gave Van Poppel his major league deal while running the A’s.

"I have no idea if it affected him psychologically or physically, or if his failure to develop was affected at all," Alderson says. "Anyone who tells you they know why someone develops and another player doesn’t is full of baloney."

Asked if the Van Poppel contract was a mistake, Alderson says, "If you’re a GM for 14 years, you’re going to do some things well and some things poorly. You learn that you’re going to screw up once in a while, but let’s minimize the damage by not doing it again."

The only damage the Reds envision is what Pena will do on upper-deck facades across the majors. They’ve got Dunn in left, Griffey in center, and perennial prospects Juan Encarnacion and Ruben Mateo in right–as well as Austin Kearns, another top young power hitter, on the cusp of the major league club. If Pena has to sit on the bench for a year, they figure they can swing it.

Because boy, he certainly can. Perhaps better than all of them.

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