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August 16, 2004

Back to the Future . . .
by Sean McNally

With Bernie Williams at times seeming to age before our very eyes and Kenny Lofton less than 12 months away from his 38th birthday, the Yankees are seemingly in the market for a long-term solution in centerfield.

Bernie is still going to be on the roster through 2005 for 12 million reasons and Lofton will be complaining about inactivity, playing a passable center and taking some of the worst lefthanded hacks ever next season for $3.1 million.

The obvious answer to the problem is throw a truckload of money at Carlos Beltran, but what if Steinbrenner and the Tampa mafia got creative and instead, invested that money in a time machine… a little bullpen cart with a flux capacitor.

Of course, if they did that they could just sign Beltran as a 17-year-old free agent, and Albert Pujols pre-emmigration and a cast of thousands…. But, what if this time machine could only go back four years from today – is there an answer that close.

Indeed there is – punch in March 20, 2001. Why that date? Well, cause it gives us 24 hours to convince Brian Cashman not to make a horrible mistake, for on the next day, tells us this happened:

"March 21, 2001: OF Wily Mo Pena Traded by the New York Yankees to the Cincinnati Reds for 3B Drew Henson and OF Michael Coleman."

Ahhh, the legend of Wily Mo Pena, former Yankee.

Silly big league contract gymnastics not included, 2004 has been a coming out party for the former Yankee farmhand.

We’ll ignore Michael Coleman and instead put Henson and Pena in a steel cage.

In his age 17 and 18 seasons, Pena split time in the Yankee farm system between the Gulf Coast Yankees, the Greensboro Bats and Staten Island Yankees in rookie and A-ball. During that time, the Dominican tools freak hit 17 homers in 488 at-bats with a .234 average and no clue of where the strike zone was as evidenced by his 32-168 walk-strikeout ratio. This does not a prospect make, but remember he was just 18 and playing in A-ball, so he was young for his league.

Drew Henson spent his age 17 and 18 seasons terrorizing high school pitching and Big-10 secondaries.

In 1998, the Yanks reached for the high school home run king in the third round, Henson, who had committed to play quarterback of the Maize and Blue of Michigan. After two years of part-time play, the Yankee brass thought they could have something – Henson had yet to slug less than .474 in either of limited play.

By 2000, New York believed Henson was the heir apparent to Scott Brosious at the hot corner and would join Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson as part of a homegrown infield in the future. However, at the 2000 trade deadline, the Yankees shipped Henson to Cincinnati along with Jackson Meilan, Brian Reith and Ed Yarnall for Mike Frank and Denny Neagle.

Frank never pitched in pinstripes and Neagle gave the Yankees a 5.81 ERA over 91.3 innings all while giving up lots of dingers and generally being miserable. He did got 1-2 in the post season with an ERA of about 4.50, but all in all Neagle was a bust before joining the Denver PTA with Mike Hampton.

Why does this trade matter? Well, Henson was Enrique Wilson awful for Cincy and was going to go play football full-time unless he was dealt back to NY. So, it came to pass on March 21, 2001, Henson was dealt back to Yanks for Wily Mo Pena and Michael Coleman.

At the time, it looked like a great swap, the Yanks got some Quadruple-A filler and Henson back for a tools freak who’d have to be in the big leagues by the time he was 21…. Ahhh, the beauty of projections.

Since that time, Henson signed a 6 year, $17 million deal and was rushed through the Yankee system, all but skipping from the Florida State League to the International League, with a brief five-game layover in the Eastern League in 2001.

During that time, he lost any clue about the strike zone that he had (not much) and regressed every year until he signed a pro football contract this past offseason.

Getting back to Wily Mo, kid broke out at Dayton of the Midwest League in 2001. Pena celebrated his 20th birthday by smoking the league to the tune of .264/.310/.485. His notion of the strike zone was theoretical at best (33-177 BB-K), but he added 16 homers to his previous career high and tacked on 93 points of slugging in what was really his first full season at any level.

In 2002 and 2003 Pena got “Rule V’ed” by the Reds due to their contractual obligation to keep him on the big league roster, so he sat a lot, got hurt and rehabbed quite a bit. Despite this, Pena appeared to make great strides at Triple-A posting a 1.117 OPS with 4 homers in just 51 at-bats over 14 games.

Wily Mo entered 2004 as the fourth outfielder in a Reds trio that featured a lock to be the first hall of famer ever to be made of glass in Ken Griffey Jr., Three True Outcomes centerfold Adam Dunn and the only player more fragile than Griffey in Austin Kearns.

However, injury and opportunity collided for Pena, all serving to make Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection for him look not that silly.

Through Sunday’s action, in 270 ABs, Pena has smoked 21 homers, good for second on the team. His OPS of .849 would be third by a wide margin among Yankee outfielders. His .533 slugging percentage would be number one, that’s right, first among all Yankees. Better than "Hits the ball harder than anyone I’ve ever seen"™ better than ICR™ and reducing No. 55 to Second-Best-in-Team-Slugging-Zilla™.

Now Wily Mo ain’t perfect… he still strikes out too damn much – 86 whiffs versus 17 walks, but he seems to be putting it all together. He likely wouldn’t have “talked” George out of Lofton, but as a potential big-league ready power hitting centerfielder, think of the booty he might have landed at the deadline.

Or, best case scenario, George doesn’t sign Lofton, and the Yankee braintrust goes after a lefty reliever to supplant The Run Fairy™, or per chance to dream, used Pena as part of a package to snag ICR rather than Soriano. Or, option three, Pena is cutting into the playing time of Ruben Sierra and Bubba Crosby, letting Sheffield DH more often and giving New York a legit fourth/fifth outfielder, all while building for the future during a championship run.

Since this is an off day, let this just be a reminder to root for who ever is playing Dallas this NFL season.