Pena will need little persuasion

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 26, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Given all the tough decisions the Rays soon face, bringing back Carlos Pena seems like a no-brainer.

Among other issues, they must ponder which (but not all) coaches to bring back along with manager Joe Maddon; whether to sign Scott Kazmir long term before starting in arbitration and whether to pick up a 2009 option on oft-injured Rocco Baldelli; what, if anything, to do with troubled OF Elijah Dukes; whether to trade a frontline outfielder for pitching and to find a shortstop or catcher; and where Curt Schilling slots into their rotation (kidding on that one ... ).

Pena, 29, was a tremendous find: He leads the Rays with career highs in homers (28) and RBIs (82), has played excellent defense, fits in well with Maddon's program and is two more years from free agency. Plus, he may be the game's biggest bargain this season for $800,000, having signed a minor-league deal.

Obviously, he's going to cost more to keep. At worst, the Rays would have to go to arbitration with Pena (and because he's repped by Scott Boras, that could be traumatic) or they could settle on a one-year deal, maybe in the $3.5-million to $4.5-million range.

But they will consider signing him long term, say a three-year deal with an option, gambling this season's showing is the start of something and not an aberration or salary drive.

And here's what's interesting: Pena really, really wants to stay.

He loves the team, the situation and the area, living with wife Pamela and nearly 2-year-old daughter Isabella in a beachfront condo, leaving the blinds cracked so he can start every day in the sunshine.

"I have this beautiful view, and every single day I take it in," he said. "Without even talking about baseball, this is an awesome place. I love it here."

Better is what he sees ahead for the Rays. "I look at this team and can't help but want to be part of this because I can see where we're going," he said. "We're so freaking close. ... In a few years, this might be the next team in contention, up there with the Yankees and Red Sox."

Pena will listen to his advisers, but he definitely wants to hear what the Rays have to say about a multiyear deal.

"I hope so. I can't hide that. I would love to look at that possibility," he said. "I would just love to stay here. I don't consider any other place where I would want to play. I really love it here."

CURT REPLIES: So Schilling thought too big a deal was made of his comments about having interest in signing with the Rays, then he wrote another 1,100 words about it on his blog (www.38pitches.com). His bottom line, from what we can tell, is that he'd like to stay in Boston; if that doesn't work out, he'd seek a team with a legit chance and commitment to win, and if not - and this is where the Rays comes in - then a team with "a wealth of great young talent, good manager and a city the family would want to live in for a year."

What makes Schilling, 40, intriguing to the Rays - as well as other teams in what's shaping up as a weak free-agent class of starting pitchers - is that he'd take a one-year deal and "it won't be about maxing out on the financial side."

RAYS RUMBLINGS: The Rays remain last in the majors in attendance, averaging 16,339 (16,684 excluding Disney), down about 3.3 percent from last year. ... Reliever Fernando Cabrera clearly didn't want to be a Ray as much as they wanted him and took what seems a lesser opportunity with the Orioles, whose bullpen is veteran heavy. ... So there was a way to turn down the volume at the Trop. ... ESPN.com's Face of the Franchise was - as it should have been - LF Carl Crawford. ... SI.com's Jon Heyman wrote of Schilling that "no two-time World Series champ and borderline Hall of Famer with a massive ego and thirst for the spotlight willingly signs up to pitch his last season in Tropicana obscurity."