The Tigers had no plans to make a move when the day began. Pena apparently put the wheels in motion when he asked for a closed-door meeting with Leyland in his office. According to Leyland, Pena asked him where he fit on the team.
"I told him, 'As we speak, you're not on my 25 [man roster],'" Leyland said. "He was obviously very professional. He had some questions that were probably more for Dave than they were for me. Obviously he felt something was up, or he wouldn't have come in. ... I certainly wasn't going to give him any runaround."
Once Pena started asking more questions, Leyland brought in Dombrowski for more answers. Dombrowski said Pena did not ask for a trade or release, and Pena apparently left the meeting prepared to work out.
"I think he's probably a player that was looking for 500 at-bats," Leyland said, "and there's no way I was going to be able to give that to him."
Dombrowski said he had been planning to make a move Monday morning unless something drastic happened. After the meeting, he decided to do it then.
"There were a couple clubs out there that I thought we still had a chance to make a trade, [but] we weren't going to make a deal with those teams," he said. "And Carlos wanted to speak to me, so I just basically said it's time to make the final decision. There was nothing that was really going to change."
Instead, Pena received the change of scenery that many in the organization believe could help him.
The 27-year-old Pena, acquired midway through the 2002 season in the Jeff Weaver trade that also brought Jeremy Bonderman to Detroit, was the Tigers starting first baseman for close to two seasons until he got out to a slow start last year. He was sent to Triple-A Toledo at the end of May with a .181 batting average. Chris Shelton took his place and soon supplanted him as the first baseman of the present and future.
Pena's future might've been over at the end of the last season, but after some productive work at Toledo, a mighty six-week stint salvaged his roster spot. He batted .286 with 15 home runs and 30 RBIs in 38 games after his recall from the Mud Hens in mid-August, though he also struck out 54 times in 133 at-bats over that span. He finished the year with a .235 average, 18 homers and 44 RBIs in 79 games.
Initially, the Tigers hoped that final surge would at least attract some trade interest. Interest waned, in part because other teams anticipated they could get him for nothing if he was released. Eventually, though, the team moved in favor of keeping him if no deal surfaced, figuring he could provide some needed left-handed power off the bench if Dmitri Young became a utility player again at the corner outfield and infield spots.
Detroit tendered Pena a contract last December and avoided arbitration with a one-year, $2.8 million deal. However, Pena's struggles this spring scuttled any chance of either a deal to another team or a fit in Detroit. After a decent start, he fell into a deep slump that included a heavy dose of strikeouts. An 0-for-4, four-strikeout game Friday against the Astros dropped his average to .160 with almost twice as many strikeouts (15) as hits (eight).
"If he had hit the way he did the last six weeks of last season, the fit would've been there," Dombrowski said. "Right now, we haven't seen it."
By releasing Pena before Wednesday, the Tigers owe him 45 days termination pay, equaling $688,525. Had they released him before March 15, they would've owed him 30 days pay, or just under $500,000. Even as that earlier date approached, though, front-office officials still held hope Pena could break out.
Those hot-and-cold streaks were at the heart of the problem with him.
"I think his play was a puzzle at times," Dombrowski said. "He's very smart. He works hard. I don't get involved with instruction ... but to me, he always needs to hit the ball to left-center field. He has to think left-center. He's always a better hitter when he tries to hit the ball to the other side.
"For whatever reason, he just could never get to the point and he just didn't make adjustments. In that way, it's been puzzling. It's not like a guy who can't figure things. It's just he was never able to carry it over on the field."
If he figures things out now, it'll be for someone else. Teams can pick him up for the minimum salary, and with a few Major League teams still facing uncertainty at first base, Pena has a chance to make an Opening Day roster after all with another team waiting to see the talent that made him a touted prospect.
The waiting period for the Tigers, though, is over.
"I think he's going to go somewhere and be successful, to be honest with you," Leyland said. "I hope he is. I'm not a guy that lives in fear of those things. I'm pulling for him to do well somewhere, and I think he will, and I don't think he'll be unemployed very long. But with our situation, and we talked about it from Day 1, it wouldn't have mattered who the manager was. We had a logjam over there. We had to make a decision."