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Swinging in DH waters

No Lance Berkman and that's fine: Astros new "big bat" is a manager in waiting, Disney nut

The Houston Astros new designated hitter is not Lance Berkman. Which didn't stop general manager Jeff Luhnow from getting asked about Berkman again and again Monday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.

For the record, Luhnow says that signing 34-year-old power hitter Carlos Pena to a one-year contract does not mean the Astros are necessarily out of the Berkman market. (Whether you want to believe signing a 37-year-old Berkman with a rebuilt knee would do anything at all for the team except give fans a fleeting blast of the past and make quote-hungry reporters happy or not is up to you).

What is certain is that Pena will be playing a good amount of designated hitter as the Astros move into the American League — with occasional cameos at first base.

 "It's a privilege to be part of the big leagues. It's a privilege to be playing a game and living our dream. Why should it be all stiffness and business?" 

Less than three years ago, Sports Illustrated called Pena "the heart of Tampa Bay's lineup and clubhouse." This praise came in the midst of the Rays' unlikely run as a power in the American League East. He's coming off something of an off season now, having hit 19 home runs in 160 games last season after slamming 28 or more dingers in each of the proceeding five seasons.

The Astros are only on the hook for $2.9 million for the one year, which would provide a nice return on investment if Pena can regain his full power stroke. Pena's agent — none other than Scott Boras — is betting that Houston's otherwise crazy young lineup will give Pena plenty of at-bats and opportunities.

"There are so many things I have to improve," Pena says. "So many things I need to work on. The game has changed and you have to adapt and make adjustments.

"And sometimes you over adjust."

One of the ways baseball has dramatically shifted is that power is much more of a scarce commodity in the post-steroids era. Players who can post big home run numbers are more valuable than before in many ways.

Whether Pena is still that type of a bat will be shown this season.

What will not change is his ultra optimistic attitude. Some of Pena's former teammates have called him the happiest man in baseball and he certainly lives up to that billing in his first appearance at Minute Maid.

Pena talks of helping to foster a new attitude in the Astros clubhouse, in almost replicating the type of feeling the Rays had in their clubhouse packed with young stars, basically all coming up together. And as he does it, he advocates an approach you won't hear a lot of 12-year Major League veterans espouse.

"It's a privilege to be part of the big leagues," Pena says. "It's a privilege to be playing a game and living our dream.

"Why should it be all stiffness and business?"

This is a guy who's been to Disney World more than 100 times by his own estimation. Yes, Carlos Pena sees things as a little more magical than the rest of us.

Which is one of the reasons Luhnow is certain you'll be seeing plenty of him beyond this season — both swinging a bat for many more years, and then likely moving into a dugout.

"My sense is Carlos is going to be in the game a long time," Luhnow says. "I do feel like this is a guy who is going to be a manager eventually."

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