The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Batch three of my completist series features a pair of Dominican-born sluggers whose unorthodox paths to the majors stand in stark contrast to those of their countrymen — not better or worse, just different, and eye-opening. Both players beat long and circuitous paths around the majors and had power galore, topping out at 46 homers apiece, but their approaches at the plate were night and day, as were their secondary skills.
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Dominican-born but American-raised, Carlos Peña was a first-round pick who struggled to live up to that billing, passing through the hands of five teams in eight years before landing in Tampa Bay. While he joined a cellar-dwelling club that had known no previous success, he played a key part in their turnaround while establishing his own foothold in the majors. For a few years, he ranked among the league’s top sluggers, and among its most patient.
Peña was born on May 17, 1978 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, but unlike so many of the island’s future major leaguers, he and his family moved to the United States while he was growing up. At the urging of Peña’s uncle Frank, who lived on Long Island, his father Felipe, an electrical engineer for the Dominican government, applied for and received a visa in 1990. Felipe and wife Juana, a teacher, wanted access to better education for their four children as well as a chance for their three sons to continue pursuing baseball. They moved to Haverhill, Massachusetts, where Felipe got a job with a utility company and eventually earned a master’s degree in business at Cambridge College, and Juana worked in a nursing home and returned to teaching.
In Haverhill, Felipe took the boys to the neighborhood YMCA, where he pitched them racquetballs from behind a makeshift L-screen. Carlos learned English and excelled academically. After graduating Haverhill High School, he initially attended Wright State University in Ohio before moving onto Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied electrical engineering and starred on the diamond, most notably earning Cape Cod League MVP honors in 1997. The Rangers drafted him 10th overall in 1998. After climbing to High-A in his first professional season, he cracked the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list at number 93. Two years later, after a 28-homer, 101-walk 2000 season at Double-A Tulsa, he was ranked number 11.
The Rangers recalled the 23-year-old Peña after a strong 2001 season at Triple-A Oklahoma City; he debuted on September 5, 2001, going 0-for-3 with an RBI groundout against the Twins’ Joe Mays. He played 22 games during that cup of coffee, hitting .258/.361/.500 with three homers, two of them in a September 19 game against the A’s.
With Rafael Palmeiro entrenched at first base, incoming general manager John Hart chose to trade Peña to the A’s as part of a six-player deal on January 14, 2002. He won Oakland’s first base job out of spring training, and claimed AL Rookie of the Month honors after a seven-homer, .552-SLG April, but after slipping into a dreadful slump when the calendar turned to May he was sent to Triple-A as part of a roster shakeup that also included the infamous Jeremy Giambi trade. On July 5, he was dealt to the Tigers alongside pitchers Jeremy Bonderman and Franklyn German in a three-team, seven-player blockbuster that sent Jeff Weaver to the Yankees and Ted Lilly to the A’s. Though the Tigers went on to lose 106 games, Peña played regularly, finishing with a modest .242/.316/.448 line, 19 homers, and 1.1 WAR. He put up similar numbers for the ghastly 119-loss edition of the Tigers in 2003, but improved to 27 homers, a 114 OPS+, and 2.8 WAR in ’04, thanks largely to a strong second half.
His improvement proved to be fleeting. After hitting .181/.307/.283 in his first 41 games in 2005, he was demoted to Triple-A Toledo for a 71-game stint. Despite going on a tear upon returning (.286/.345/.662 with 15 homers in 145 PA), he drew his release the following spring. The Tigers went on to win the AL pennant, though their first basemen (mainly Chris Shelton and late-season acquisition Sean Casey) combined for just 1.0 WAR. Peña spent four months with the Yankees’ Triple-A Columbus affiliate, then signed with the Red Sox, but drew just 37 plate appearances.
To that point, the 28-year-old owned 86 homers, a career 111 OPS+ (.243/.331/.459), and just 5.5 WAR in 1,925 PA. Despite his draft pedigree, he didn’t look like a future All-Star, Gold Glove winner, league home run leader, or starter on a pennant winner. Yet he parlayed a minor league contract and non-roster invitation with the Devil Rays, who had just lost 101 games during their ninth straight losing season into that run of success. Reassigned to minor league camp late in spring training, he made the Devil Rays thanks to an injury, and shared the first base job with Ty Wigginton until late April. After going on a tear in May, he hit 33 homers through the end of August, and capped that with a 13-homer September. His 46 homers, .627 slugging percentage, and 172 OPS+ were second only to Alex Rodriguez, while his 103 walks ranked third, his 7.2 WAR fourth, and his .411 on-base percentage fifth. After winning AL Comeback Player of the Year honors, he signed a three-year, $24.125 million extension.
Peña couldn’t match those numbers in 2008, but his 31 homers, 129 OPS+, and 5.1 WAR helped the Rays win their first AL East title, and he won a Gold Glove. He caught fire in the ALCS against the Red Sox (.269/.406/.654, three home runs, six RBI) but struggled in the World Series against the Phillies, failing to collect a hit until the fifth and final game.
Increasingly pull-happy and therefore subject to infield shifts, Peña dipped to .227/.356/.537 (133 OPS+) in 2009. Despite missing nearly four weeks due to a pair of broken fingers on his left hand that required surgery, his 39 homers led the AL, and he made his lone All-Star team, but his glovework declined from 15 DRS in 2008 to -3 in ’09, and with it, his WAR fell to 3.1. His batting average crashed through the floor in 2010 (.196/.325/.407), offset by 28 homers and 101 walks, and worth a modest 2.1 WAR.
A free agent again, the 32-year-old Peña began a particularly peripatetic phase of his career. He spent a solid 2011 season with the Cubs (28 homers, 101 walks, 123 OPS+, 2.6 WAR), but a return to Tampa Bay the following year went dreadfully (.197/.330/.354, 0.6 WAR). He spent most of 2013 with the Astros but was released on July 31, and tacked on a four-game stint with the Royals. A trip to spring training with the Angels didn’t pan out, and so he came full circle by signing with the Rangers in mid-June. He didn’t hit a lick in 63 PA in late June and early July, and was released in mid-August. He joined MLB Network following the season, and signed an honorary contract to officially retire as a Ray on September 18, 2015.
Few players have ever provided a power-and-speed combination on the level of seven-time All-Star Alfonso Soriano. During his 16-year career (1999-2014), he reached the twin plateaus of 30 homers and 30 steals in the same season four times, more than any other player except for Bobby Bonds and his son Barry (five times apiece). What’s more, after missing by a single homer in 2002, Soriano became just the fourth player ever to reach 40 homers and 40 steals in the same season in 2006.
Soriano was born on January 7, 1976 in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic (up until 2004, his birth year was reported as 1978, which colored the perception of him as a prospect). His mother’s brother, Hilario Soriano, spent the better part of the 1973-85 span catching in the organizations of the Cardinals, Dodgers, Expos, and Blue Jays, then scouting for the Marlins and Blue Jays; when he came home for the winter, he brought bats and gloves for Alfonso and brothers Frederico and Julio, both of whom played professionally as well. Alfonso was so lacking in foot speed that he earned the nickname “The Mule,” but his strong arm caught his uncle’s attention. It also impressed scouts for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese Central League, who operated an academy in the Dominican Republic.
Soriano signed with the Carp in 1995, and spent most of the next two seasons with their minor league team; he played nine games for the Carp in 1997, going 2-for-17. Yet he grew weary of the rigor, distance from home, and limited salary offered by Japanese baseball, and with the help of agent Don Nomura, who years earlier had found a loophole that enabled Hideo Nomo to come stateside, retired. The Carp threatened to sue any MLB team that negotiated with him, but after Soriano sat out the 1998 season, he was declared a free agent. The Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Indians, and Diamondbacks all worked out Soriano, with the Yankees outbidding Cleveland via a five-year, $3.15 million deal.
After spending time at three minor league levels in 1999, primarily as a shortstop, Soriano played eight games for the Yankees, entering games as a pinch-runner seven times (the first on September 14 against the Blue Jays), staying in the game to hit a walk-off solo homer off the Devil Rays’ Norm Charlton on September 24, and going 0-for-5 in his lone game at shortstop while Derek Jeter took a breather. He spent most of 2000 at Triple-A Columbus but hit .180/.196/.360 in 53 PA with the big club; he made six errors in a total of 110.2 innings at shortstop and third base, leading this scribe to describe his play at the hot corner “with the grace of a man putting out a grease fire,” but took to second base at Columbus. His stock as a prospect remained high; he entered the 2001 season 27th on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list, and when the Yankees decided to convert throwing-challenged second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to left field, Soriano opened the season at the keystone.
A free swinger, Soriano didn’t draw his first base on balls until April 29, 25 games into the season, and hit just .268/.304/.432 with 18 homers and defensive struggles so great (-19 runs via Total Zone) that he netted 0.0 WAR. Nonetheless, he came up huge in the postseason, hitting a two-run walk-off homer off the Mariners’ Kazuhiro Sasaki in Game 4 of the ALCS, adding a 12th-inning walk-off single off the Diamondbacks’ Albie Lopez in Game 5 of the World Series, and homering off Curt Schilling in the eighth inning of Game 7 to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead that Mariano Rivera ultimately squandered.
Though he struck out nearly seven times for every walk in 2002, Soriano took a big step forward, hitting .300/.332/.547 with 39 homers while leading the league in plate appearances (741), at-bats (696), hits (209), and steals (41), and tallying a respectable 4.8 WAR. He made his first of seven straight All-Star teams, but stumbled in pursuit of 40-40 by failing to homer in his final 11 games, his longest drought of the season; still, his was the first 30-30 season by a Yankee since the elder Bonds in 1975. Thanks to much-improved defense (-2 DRS), Soriano climbed to 5.4 WAR in 2003 while batting .290/.338/.525 with 38 homers and 35 steals. Amid an up-and-down postseason that included a 4-for-30 ALCS and 12 strikeouts in a span of 25 PA from the ALCS finale through the first four games of the World Series against the Marlins, Soriano was benched, then inserted in right field in the late innings of Game 5, a puzzling time for an outfield debut. Though he collected two of the Yankees’ five hits in Game 6, when the team was shut out by Josh Beckett, he had fallen out of favor in the Bronx.
On February 16, 2004, Soriano was traded to the Rangers along with a player to be named later in exchange for Rodriguez, with Texas eating a ton of cash as well. At this point Soriano’s age discrepancy came to light; he was 28 years old, not 26. Despite the move to an even more hitter-friendly ballpark, his OPS+ dropped from 126 to 100, while his home run and stolen base totals dipped to 28 and 18, respectively, and his WAR to 2.0. Despite rebounding to 36 homers and 30 steals in 2005, dismal defense (-26 DRS) dropped his WAR to 1.7.
With his free agency looming — and prospect Ian Kinsler waiting in the wings — the Rangers traded Soriano to the Nationals in exchange for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Termel Sledge and pitcher Armando Galarraga. Washington moved him to left field, and was rewarded for it; not only was Soriano 18 runs above average defensively, he hit 46 homers, stole 41 bases, and batted .277/.351/.560 (135 OPS+) en route to 6.1 WAR (fourth in the league); all but his batting average would stand as career highs.
Soriano converted that walk year into an eight-year, $136 million deal from the Cubs, who were coming off a 96-loss season. Soriano had a strong debut season in Chicago (33 HR, 122 OPS+, 4.3 WAR) despite missing three weeks due to a quad strain. Under new manager Lou Piniella, the Cubs improved to 85 wins, enough to win a weak NL Central, but they were swept out of the Division Series by the Diamondbacks. Between a calf strain and a fractured metacarpal, Soriano’s 2008 was much more injury-marred (109 games, 29 HR, 19 SB, 2.0 WAR); the Cubs won an NL-high 97 games but were bounced by the Dodgers in the Division Series.
That was a bummer, but the rest of Soriano’s stay in Chicago was an unmitigated disaster from a contract standpoint. From 2009 until mid-’13, he netted just 1.9 WAR as knee troubles slowed him in the outfield and his on-base percentage occasionally plummeted below .300 (to be fair, FanGraphs’ version of WAR takes a more positive view of his defense, crediting him with 7.6 WAR in this span, more mediocre than miserable). As the Cubs plunged into their Theo Epstein-era rebuild following the 2011 season and began unloading high-salaried veterans like Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster, it was only a matter of time before they found an acceptable amount of Soriano’s contract to eat. On July 26, 2013, he waived his no-trade rights and was sent to the Yankees — who were desperate for left field help and anticipating the Biogenesis-related suspension of Rodriguez as well — along with $17.7 million. Improbably, the 37-year-old Soriano went on a tear, homering 11 times in August and 17 in 58 games overall while batting .256/.325/.525; his total of 34 homers was his highest since 2006. It wasn’t enough to help the Yankees back to the playoffs, and it did not carry over into 2014; he drew his release the following July, and chose to retire.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.