Why we love the Rays: Pena batting leadoff

Leave it to Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays to find another unconventional way to play baseball: Carlos Pena is hitting leadoff in tonight's game against Toronto.

Yes, the first baseman with one stolen base and a .209 batting average. Last week, in a 2-1 victory over the Red Sox, Maddon had second baseman Jeff Keppinger and third baseman Sean Rodriguez shift positions for the final batter, left-handed hitter Daniel Nava. Rodriguez has more range than Keppinger, so Maddon moved him to second. Sure enough, Nava grounded out to Rodriguez for the final out.

Now, it's possible that Maddon is looking at Pena's .353 on-base percentage (.372 against right-handed pitchers) and thinking Pena is the team's best leadoff option right now with Desmond Jennings on the disabled list. It's possible he's trying to help Pena snap out of a big slump -- he's hitting .116 in May -- like a year ago when he moved Evan Longoria into the leadoff spot for three games. Either way, how many managers would hit their slow-footed first baseman first?

There's a bigger issue concerning Pena, however. Since April 18, he's hitting .143/.302/.223 with two home runs in 112 at-bats. He's tied for second in the majors in most strikeouts. With two strikes, he's useless: .110 on the season, and just 3-for-60 (.050) with 42 strikeouts since April 18. His skill set right now is essentially the ability to draw walks. Considering he can't hit left-handers, you can't keep a guy like that in the middle of the order.

I remember way back when Bill James asked if Mickey Tettleton had taken the whole walks/strikeouts approach too far. It's possible we can ask the same question for Pena. Maddon has shown a lot of patience with Pena, starting him in 42 of Tampa's 43 games. It's also clear that he needs to be platooned, but in this day of 12-man pitching staffs it's difficult to platoon at first base. It makes you wonder if this leadoff thing doesn't work if the Rays will be searching for a new first baseman.