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If only they'd noticed
The MVP vote clinches it: Carlos Pena's great season was historically ignored.
By JOHN ROMANO
Published November 20, 2007
The Rays' Carlos Pena, ninth in AL MVP voting hit 46 home runs with 121 RBI. Only 35 seasons have ever been better since they began giving MVP awards in 1931.
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
ST. PETERSBURG - This distinction will never be officially recorded. Which, come to think of it, further proves the point.
Nevertheless, it now appears safe to say Carlos Pena recently completed the most underappreciated season a baseball slugger has ever known. It just took this long for the indifference to finally get noticed.
In case you missed it, they announced the vote totals for the American League Most Valuable Player Award on Monday. Alex Rodriguez won, which was not a surprise. Pena finished ninth, which also was not a shock. The difference is Rodriguez deserved his fate, and Pena deserved better.
Oh, I'm not saying the voters were wrong. I'm not saying they didn't have legitimate reasons for voting the way they did, even the six who left him off their ballot of 10 names. All I'm saying is it's a shame Pena has not gotten more recognition for a season that was among the finest you will ever see.
Think that is hyperbole? Think it is sentimentality for a player who is among the most gracious in the game?
Pena hit 46 home runs. He drove in 121 runs. His slugging percentage was .627, and his OPS on-base plus slugging was 1.038. Using those numbers as a starting point, only 35 seasons have ever been better since they began giving MVP awards in 1931. Seasons by Ruth and DiMaggio. By Mantle and Mays. By Bonds and Pujols.
Of those 35 seasons, the responsible player finished in the top three of the MVP voting 24 times. And none ever finished worse than ninth (except for Mark McGwire, whose candidacy was split in 1997 because he spent part of the season in the AL and part in the NL).
And now, along comes Pena, playing before the smallest crowds in the American League and impressing fewer voters than Ichiro Suzuki and his 68 RBIs.
"You know, I'm just excited to be in the top 10," Pena said Monday afternoon. "You can probably argue if I was on another team, my MVP chances could have been stronger. To be honest, I don't look at it that way. If I'm going to win that type of award, I want to do it here. I feel like I'm part of something here.
"It's great the way things have turned out. I'm very happy, and I'm proud of this season."
Add humility and common sense to the list of Pena's accomplishments in 2007.
He knows, first of all, that MVP votes are hard to come by on a last-place team. And he knows the Rays have flown further under the radar than any team in the majors for the past decade. He might even know voters have been less impressed by power numbers in recent seasons than they might have been 20 years ago.
So there are rational explanations for Pena's low finish in the MVP voting. Just as there were rational explanations for Kirk Gibson winning when he hit .290 with 76 RBIs in 1988, or for Terry Pendleton beating out Barry Bonds in 1991.
If the MVP award were based strictly on numbers, why would you even need voters?
So the point is not to criticize. It is not to declare an injustice. The point is merely to suggest Pena's season would have been far more heralded with another team at another time.
We're talking about a guy who was released or allowed to walk away from three different teams in the 12 months before joining the Rays. A guy the Rays sent back to the minors just before the start of the 2007 season.
"As a kid, as a young man, as an adult, I always dreamed about having a season like this," Pena said. "I thought I had it in me. I thought I was capable of putting up those kind of numbers. But envisioning something and actually seeing it materialize are two different things.
"Even now, seven weeks later, it's still hard for me to believe. It really is amazing."
For the first time in a long while, Pena, 29, has some security. After bouncing from Texas to Oakland to Detroit to New York to Boston in a six-year span, he knows exactly where he will be when March rolls around.
The only question now is whether the Rays tie him up with a multiyear contract in the next three months. The odds, frankly, are not good. Pena is still two years away from free agency, which means urgency is not an issue.
To get the security of a long-term deal, Pena will have to accept less than he would get on the open market in 2010. With Scott Boras as his agent, that prospect does not seem likely. And, considering he was a vagabond before 2007, the Rays might want to see if he can put strong back-to-back seasons together.
"The Rays definitely know how much I like the area and the team and the people. We're going to keep talking about it, but there's no rush," Pena said. "I feel like I'm part of this family. When the Rays talk about the future, I feel comfortable including myself in the conversation. I've never felt so much a part of something as I do with the Rays."