Carlos Pena is returning to the Rays, and that just feels right.

It was around midway through the 2007 season when Carlos Pena sought out Rays GM Andrew Friedman on a team flight. At a time when rumors were swirling about players coming and going, Pena had a simple message for his new boss.

“I don’t want to be traded,” he said.

That was not the usual thing the Rays heard from their players. Because the Rays had small crowds, terrible teams and no tradition, some players saw Tampa Bay as the last place they wanted to be.

Carlos Pena liked it. He liked the city, and he believed that the smart young general manager and the shrewd manager would get things turned around. He wanted them to know that he would like to be there for that event.

Pena stayed long enough to see the Rays play in a World Series and become widely recognized as one of the smartest organizations in baseball. But small-market teams occasionally have tough decisions to make, and after the 2010 season, the Rays said their goodbyes to Pena, who signed with the Cubs.

He’d be the first to tell you that part of his heart remained in Tampa, and that’s why it feels right that he’s returning to the Rays for the 2012 season. He’s 33 years old and has spent four of his 11 major league seasons with the Rays, so they ought to know what they’re getting. Specifically, they’re getting home runs.

He has batted .216 the last three seasons, but hit 95 home runs and drove in 264 runs in that time. His OBP is .346 during those three seasons. It’ll be interesting to see how Joe Maddon uses him since he has fairly dramatic splits. Against right-handed pitching last season, he batted .255 with an .892 OPS. Against lefties, he batted .133 with a .598 OPS.

He won a Gold Glove at first base in 2008, and seeing how that’s a position Friedman has been attempting to address, he seems to be a nice fit. With the signings of Pena and Luke Scott, Friedman appears to have shored up his offense enough to back up all that pitching as the Rays attempt to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

Pena, who made $10 million during his last season in Tampa Bay, will be making $7.5 million once all the paperwork is completed. Like other small-market general managers, Friedman doesn’t have the resources to compete for big-ticket free agents. But with spring training approaching, any mention of the American League’s best team would have to include the Rays, and Pena’s signing is another step in that direction.

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