- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. | The word “potential” has followed Wily Mo Pena his entire career, like a shiny piece of plastic packaging advertising a brand-new action figure.

It has been there in the years Pena hit just enough home runs in 300 at-bats to make fans extrapolate the numbers out over a full season and dream. It has been there when one team, then another, signed the hulking outfielder on the belief that his breakout season lay just around the corner. And it has been there especially when Pena steps into a batting cage, extends those beefy arms and deposits balls beyond the left-field fence in succession.

He even came with his own catchy nickname: The Weapon of Mass Production.

But when potential becomes passe, it’s a depressing thing to watch. Pena turned 27 in January, while he was rehabbing a torn left rotator cuff that cost him most of a season and $3 million - the difference between the $5 million club option the Nationals didn’t pick up on Pena and the $2 million option he exercised to lock in a deal for this season.

He’s dealing with a right shoulder injury now, getting a few at-bats only a few times a week and running out of time to prove he should get a spot in the Nationals’ crowded outfield. And to live up to that clever moniker.

“It has to be difficult,” Acta said. “With the surplus of outfielders we have here, the best thing for him would have been showing up in camp, and from Day One, being able to play in the outfield, compete and have his at-bats. He wasn’t able to do that.”

Both Pena’s strengths and flaws as a ballplayer have been self-evident most of his career, a kind of baseball accounting book laid open for all to see. He gouges left-handed pitchers, but right-handers can throw breaking balls past his sometimes-overactive bat. He has a deadly arm, though his instincts in the field aren’t always sharp.

He has drawn more than one comparison to Pedro Cerrano, the slugger from the “Major League” movies, both for his appearance and for a game built so much on extremes.

This spring, the question is whether Pena can show enough of his good side to stay on the roster.

That has been difficult so far - because of his right shoulder injury, he has only played in games where the Nationals and their opponent agree to use a designated hitter - but Pena believes he’s about to make a leap.

He started throwing Friday, recovering from an injury he said was caused by focusing too much on his left shoulder in the offseason and overcompensating as a result. Once he can get in the field, he thinks he’ll present a complete enough argument to stay on the roster.

“I don’t worry about [competition],” he said. “Everything’s going to be fine. I just want to be ready to play in the outfield. … Everything’s feeling good, especially [the left] shoulder. I don’t have to worry about that one.”

But others see a little more to the story. They remember how long Pena tried to play hurt last season, grimacing through 64 games to finish with a .205 batting average and two homers, and how optimistic he was about starting the spring healthy. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who has been tooling around with Pena’s swing to prevent him from jumping out in front of the ball like he was last year, can feel how badly Pena wants to make an impression.

“Oh, sure. Who hasn’t [felt that way]?” Eckstein said. “Everybody’s fighting for a job. There’s a tremendous amount of competition in the ranks. Guys are wanting to show what they can do.”

Pena’s time to prove himself - and replace potential with something more concrete - might be running short with the Nationals.

“He needs to open everybody else’s eyes here, go out there and impress people,” Acta said. “There’s no secret that he was hurt last year, he had a down year. We have a lot of outfielders here. He’s a veteran guy, too. These guys need to separate themselves from the pack.”

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