KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Houston Astros don't have a lot of money or name recognition on their roster, but they're awash in youthful exuberance. Of the 53 players still in major league camp, only four -- Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel, Phil Humber and Jose Veras (who is currently playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic) -- are 30 or older.
Pena, a veteran of 12 big league seasons with Tampa Bay, Detroit and four other clubs, is the oldest player of the group at age 34. He signed for a $2.9 million salary plus incentives in December after hitting .196, .225 and .197 over the past three seasons. Those low batting averages notwithstanding, Pena is expected to hit third or fourth in the Astros' lineup this season. He has a career .350 on-base percentage, so he knows how to work a count and take a walk.
Beyond the service time, Pena's 277 career homers, Silver Slugger Award, Gold Glove and 2009 All-Star Game appearance confer a certain stature upon him as a veteran sounding board, mentor and babysitter to the kids. Pena knows how it feels to be on the other end of the equation; in 2001, he broke into the big leagues on a Texas Rangers team that included veterans Rafael Palmeiro, Pudge Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga, Ken Caminiti, Randy Velarde, Rusty Greer, Ruben Sierra, Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers. Without naming names, he says some of the veterans were more supportive than others.
"From my experience, I should be able to communicate better with the younger guys now than some of the veterans did 10 years ago," Pena said. "It's funny how you can learn. I remember thinking, 'Wow, it was tough trying to follow in that guy's footsteps.'
"I don't want the young players to feel that way with me. I want to be accessible. I want them to feel like I'm a big brother. And I learn from them, also. I love the beginner's mind[set], where they're always receptive and willing to learn. I love that about the young players. It's very refreshing for me."
One of Pena's biggest influences on that 2001 Texas club was Bo Porter, a 28-year-old reserve outfielder who went on to become future manager material as a coach with the Marlins, Diamondbacks and Nationals. When Porter landed the Houston managerial gig over the winter, it was a major selling point for Pena to come on board.
"Bo was a guy who took the young players under his wing, and that was something I appreciated," Pena said. "I was always trying to watch what he did. I want the young players here to feel the same way about me that I felt about Bo when we were with the Rangers.
"As soon as I heard Bo was the manager here, I said, 'That place is going have a lot of positive energy.' There's going to be hard-core work and some discipline, and nothing out of line is going to fly. But there's also going to be a lot of fun and motivation and an encouraging type of mentality. I was very attracted to this possibility."
Although the Astros are thin at a lot of spots, they have an abundance of first base-DH types in camp. Along with Pena, the roster includes Chris Carter, Brett Wallace and Nate Freiman, a Rule 5 draft pick from the San Diego organization. Carter and Wallace are former top prospects who are still trying to establish themselves in the big leagues. Freiman, 26, hit 24 homers, drove in 105 runs and recorded a .502 slugging percentage for the Padres' Double-A affiliate in San Antonio last season. He's listed at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds.
Houston's Opening Day payroll is expected to come in slightly above $20 million, so when the Astros spend money on a veteran, they would prefer that he be something of a surrogate coach on the field, in the dugout and the clubhouse. Pena appears to fit that description.
"He's had success in this league, and he's had failure in this league," said Astros bench coach Eduardo Perez. "He keeps it real, and that's the most important thing. Has the game come easily to him? No. He's had to work hard at it. That's what he brings to these guys. He's been unselfish since day one. He's been great for us."