"I'm happy I went through the struggles I went through last year, because it makes me stronger," Pena said. "Today, the Cubs are getting a better player because of it."
Pena and Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo started work in the batting cage this past week in Dallas. Jaramillo got a head start on the private session by watching video of the first baseman shortly after Pena signed with the Cubs in December.
"I have a good idea of what we want to do," Jaramillo said. "I just want to get his confidence going and make him realize when he's doing it right and not so right."
What's the problem?
"He had a lower-half timing issue," Jaramillo said. "He probably needs to get better recognition. When you're striking out 150 times, it means you're making bad decisions.
"You hate to dwell on the negative," he said. "I'm not looking at what he did last year. I know what he can do. He just wants to be more consistent. I'm going to try to help him learn what he's doing when he's doing it right so he can feel it and make that adjustment in between pitches instead of waiting for day-to-day [adjustments]."
Pena's batting average has dropped each of the past four seasons since a career high of .282 in 2007. The first baseman has come full circle with Jaramillo. Pena began his pro career under Jaramillo's guidance, although it was indirect at first. Pena was drafted by the Rangers in 1998 and made it to the big league team in '01. Jaramillo was the hitting coach in Texas for 15 years before signing with the Cubs in '10, and his program was taught throughout the Rangers' system.
"We always had a good rapport in Texas," Jaramillo said in an interview during last weekend's Cubs Convention. "He believes in me and obviously, I believe in his ability and the type of person he is. He's a character guy, educated, and he's smart and can make adjustments. I think he just needs to learn a little more about his swing."
Pena also may contribute to the Cubs in another way. He and Aramis Ramirez are the same age, are projected to hit in the middle of the order, and are both unsigned for 2012.
"Ramirez is a real competitive-type person and he wants to be the man," Jaramillo said. "Here's somebody now who can be the man and I think it'll help [Ramirez] want to do better. It's competition, and he's real competitive. Ramirez has been the man here -- him and Derrek Lee. I think Carlos will be good for him and I think Carlos will push him. I think they'll be good for each other."
Ramirez and Pena first met in the Dominican Republic when they played in winter ball. This is the last year of Ramirez's deal with the Cubs; Pena signed a one-year, $10 million contract.
"If [Ramirez] wants to keep playing, then they'll compete and do something this year," Jaramillo said. "He should be motivated, but the whole key is does he want to continue playing? He's got all the money in the world. I think he'll do a lot better. Our rapport is a lot better. I took a lot of stuff that I usually don't, but I had to be patient and I think it'll work out in the end."
Both Ramirez and Lee said they felt they were their own best hitting coaches and, as veterans, knew their swing better than anyone. It took time for Jaramillo to build up a relationship with the third baseman. Ramirez also said he wasn't healthy last year, which contributed to his .207 average in the first half.
At the end of last season, Ramirez did go the batting cage more and asked for some assistance. When asked at the Cubs Convention about his relationship with Jaramillo, Ramirez said it was good.
"I believe he trusts me more," Jaramillo said. "Some guys are harder than others."
Ramirez wasn't the only Cubs player who needed a little more time. The same was true for catcher Geovany Soto, who Jaramillo said was "a little hard-headed at first."
"You've got to prove yourself to them that, 'Hey, this is the right way to do it,'" Jaramillo said. "They have to see results. The only way they are going to trust something new is to see results. As a coach, you're going, 'I hope it pays off now.' I knew it would in the long run."
Jaramillo doesn't have to worry about Pena. He couldn't wait to get started.
"It's just getting back to basics," Pena said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.