Passing up several multi-year deals, Carlos Pena chose one year (and a cool $10 million) to sign with the Chicago Cubs — partially because old friend Rudy Jaramillo is around as hitting coach to help fix his swing.
The feeling is mutual. Only a couple of hours after he talked with Pena soon after the latter’s signing was announced Wednesday, Jaramillo outlined how he’ll try to boost Pena from his career-low .196 average in 2011.
Having worked with Pena when he first came up with the Texas Rangers, Jaramillo knows he’s got a good base with which to start. Even in his sub-Mendoza line year, Pena kept his walk total above 80 — a figure few Cubs in their swing-from the-heels era have ever approached. Pena’s career high was 103 walks in his 46-homer season in 2007. The last Cub to draw that many free passes was Gary “Sarge” Matthews, who led the NL with 103 in 1984.
“It shows he has great hand and eye (coordination),” Jaramillo said from his Dallas-area home. “He needs a little help in his approach mechanically. I can keep him more consistent in what he’s doing. He’s an outstanding teammate. He talks a lot, is real approachable, is an outstanding young man.”
Jaramillo has a lofty goal for Pena going in to next season. He struck out 158 times in 2010, following up seasons of 163 and 166 K’s.
“He can cut him down,” he said. “If he can cut out 30-40 (strikeouts), that’s huge. We have a plan to go at it. I’m just going to try him to get (better pitch) recognition, cut down on strikeouts. Get recognition sooner. I think he’ll be able to make the adjustments.”
And if Pena can get a good inside-out swing going, to slice the ball toward the wind tunnel blowing out toward left field, he’ll be in good shape. In contrast, if he consistently tries to pull to right, Jaramillo knows Pena will be in trouble, given the wind frequently blows in from that direction.
“Left-center, that’s the approach he has to take,” he said. “Some of those pitches are middle-in, you hit them out to left-center. I’m already planning on things in spring training. I want him to write notes down.”
Jaramillo indeed has a rare commodity in Cubs annals — a left-handed power-hitting first baseman. Only Leon “Bull” Durham and Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff qualify. Durham had 20 homers four seasons in a row from 1984-87. He had a great 1984 with 96 RBIs, but had an utterly ineffectual 27 homers that produced just 63 RBIs in 1987. McGriff apathetically had the quietest 30 homers and 103 RBIs in Cubs history in 2002.
Meanwhile, most southpaw-swinging Cubs first baseman were of the Mark Grace/Bill Buckner/Dee Fondy/Phil Cavarretta/Charlie Grimm/Larry Biittner mold. Lots of doubles, but struggles to get past 15 homers — if that many. Cavarretta won the 1945 MVP with just six homers to go with his NL-pacing .355 average
Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee virtually tuned out Jaramillo when he took over as hitting coach last season. But it sounds as if Pena will be an apt student. And with even modest improvement via Jaramillo’s program, he could make a big splash. Fans should enjoy Pena’s production because they’ve rarely seen it at a position where it should be second nature.