Felix Pena has toiled in anonymity for the better part of three years as a starter at Kane County, Daytona, and Tennessee. Now that he is a reliever at AAA Iowa, suddenly people have taken notice of his talents. At 26, Pena has taken a long, slow road to get to Des Moines.
Originally, Pena was signed by Jim Hendry in 2009 and made his stateside debut in 2011 at Boise. Since then, he has basically gone up a level a year for five years from Boise to Peoria to Kane county to Daytona to Tennessee and now to Iowa. In that same time, he slowly developed his repertoire. He got off to great first halves in Daytona (2.59 ERA in 12 starts) and Tennessee (3.13 ERA in 12 starts), but his won-loss record was not indicative of his talents. I actually used to refer to him as Mr. No Run Support.
Pena has always been known as a who has quality pitches, he just never really settled into a permanent role. Early in his career he was a reliever, then he started exclusively once he got to Kane County. Now we’re seeing him come into his own in a return to the pen. Reports of his ability are pretty consistent in this year-end account from Tony U. of Chicago Cubs Online, which showed a little prescience when it came to Pena’s future role:
Scouts now have Pena’s fastball clocking in at around 95 mph, and many believe he belongs in the Cubs’ top 30 prospect list, if he remains with the organization […] While Pena has worked exclusively as a starter for the past two seasons, he does have experience as a middle reliever/spot starter. There are some who draw comparisons of Pena with Hector Rondon, and feel he could end up as a closer.
Pena has been outstanding 17 relief appearances, compiling a 1.29 ERA. In just 28 innings, he has struck out 34 batters and only walked eight. For most of the month of May, the Iowa starting staff was in disarray, so Pena and the rest of the Iowa bullpen helped keep games close enough that when the starting pitchers got healthy, the Cubs could go on a run. Iowa did just that, winning nine games in a row and currently sitting in first place.
At 26, I think Pena’s future is going to be in the bullpen. It could be this year, it could be next year, but you can hear the clock starting to tick. The big league club is in need of lefty relievers, which might be a hindrance to Pena in both the short and long run. However, if you can get outs at the major-league level, I don’t think the Cubs really care whether you throw right- or left-handed.