JUPITER, Fla. – Manager Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves know not to make too much of spring-training statistics, but utility infielder Ramiro Pena has impressed everyone in camp as a better hitter than numbers he produced with the Yankees indicate.
Pena, 27, rejoined the Braves after a stint with Mexico in the World Baseball Classic and picked up where he left off, with a double and a walk in three plate appearances Tuesday against the Cardinals. He was 8-for-22 (.364) with three doubles, four walks and three strikeouts before Wednesday night, when he was in the lineup against the Marlins.
“(The WBC) was a really good experience for me,” said Pena, who had three doubles in 13 at-bats for Mexico, and will get most of the playing time at shortstop for the Braves until Andrelton Simmons returns from the WBC sometime next week.
Simmons’ Netherlands team advanced to the semifinals to be played Sunday and Monday in San Francisco.
It’s been apparent since the first week of camp that the smooth-fielding Pena would be on the Opening Day roster, and probably should have been before that: The Braves signed him to a free-agent contract in December, knowing Paul Janish would require a six-month rehab from October shoulder surgery and likely not be ready for the first weeks of April.
Like Janish, Pena is in the majors for his strong defense. Pena is adept at shortstop and second base and also has has plenty of experience at third base and some in the outfield. It’s uncertain what the Braves will do with Janish when he’s ready, likely at some point in April, but there’s not room for both on the major league roster.
“He’s been great,” Gonzalez said of Pena. “I haven’t seen him at third base yet, but he can play the middle of the diamond, and he’s an offensive guy. What we’ve seen at spring training is better than what he hit (at New York).”
Offensive guy? Pena hit just .233 with a .266 on-base percentage in 313 at-bats over the past four seasons with New York, with 11 extra-base hits including two homers. After hitting .287 in 115 at-bats as a rookie in 2009, he hit .227 in 154 at-bats in 2010, went 4-for-40 in 2011, and had only four major league at-bats in 2012 while spending the rest of the year at Triple-A.
“He looks better than that,” Gonzalez said. “But again, you look at those big league numbers when he was with the Yankees, he told me he spent one month without even playing one time.”
Gonzalez isn’t the only one who’s thought that of Pena while watching him hit line drives since camp began last month. He’s added some muscle and worked on his approach the past couple of seasons.
“Now I feel a little stronger than I was when I was with the Yankees,” he said. “I’ve played more, in the winter and (in spring training). I feel good playing every day.”
He said he didn’t adjust well to a bench role after being a regular in the minor, but has learned more about preparing for the job.