How Hunter Pence Fits in Pittsburgh

There’s an adage regarding the trade deadline I heard recently, but can’t remember the source. The idea, essentially, is that if you require additional players in order to contend, you shouldn’t play the role of buyer. The trade deadline is a time for contenders to shore up their rosters for the final third of the season, not for pretenders to sell the farm for a prayer. This year the Pirates might have reason to eschew that logic. They’re playing better than their talent indicates — about seven wins better, according to Baseball Prospectus’s third-order wins — and could come crashing down at any time. But they’re currently just a half game back of first, and without a standout team in the NL Central they could stay in the race with the right upgrades. A rental, however, might not be the way to go.

On Friday David covered ways the Pirates could improve their offense. They have three main areas of concern, but it would appear easiest to fill their first base or outfield vacancy. David mentioned rentals such as Carlos Pena and Josh Willingham, both of whom would certainly improve the Pirates’ offense. But both become free agents after the season. For a team fortifying its roster for the stretch run, a prospects-for-rentals deal might make sense. The Pirates aren’t fortifying, though. They’re covering up major weaknesses, and even then they might regress from contention. If they’re going to upgrade, they should look to the long term.

This morning Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Rob Biertempfel brought us an interesting tidbit. Apparently the Pirates have scouted Astros RF Hunter Pence “with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline in mind.” While the Astros are firmly in the sellers column, it’s unknown whether they’re interested at all in dealing Pence, who is by degrees the team’s best hitter. He is certainly their best trade chip, so the Pirates’ interest is not surprising. It’s even less surprising, because he’s one of the few avilable players who would stay with the team after this season. But does he fit with the Pirates?

One important factor when discussing any Astros player is the hitter-friendliness of Minute Maid Park. If you look at the park factors at StatCorner, you’ll see lots of figures over 100, especially for right-handed batters. Pence currently has a .354 career wOBA, but that splits into .368 at home and .340 on the road. He also hits for more power at home, a .203 ISO vs. .178 on the road, and his BABIP is considerably higher, .344 at home and .313 on the road. This season is his best since his breakout rookie season, and he’s taking advantage of Minute Maid to the tune of a .397 wOBA. PNC Park, on the other hand, is death to righty power. It has a home run factor of just 73 for righties, which is lower than Safeco Field and Oakland Coliseum. That might make a trade harder to justify.

Pence’s contract situation creates further problems in potential trade talks. He was a Super Two in 2010 and earned $3.5 million in his first arbitration hearing. That nearly doubled to $6.9 million in 2011, and he still has two more years of arbitration before hitting free agency. He could get quite expensive in those two years, which would make him less of a bargain at a time when teams, in theory, should be getting a player for below his market rate. If we combine those arbitration raises with presumably depressed numbers at PNC Park, it could lead to the Pirates overpaying. Add in the bounty in prospects the Astros would require, and the Pirates probably shouldn’t be too motivated to swing a deal.

While Pence specifically might not fit in Pittsburgh, the general idea is right. The Pirates might be in the thick of the race right now, but it’s a long 11 weeks between now and season’s end. They’re surely playing over their heads, rendering a prospects-for-rentals deal unpalatable. If they do want to swing a deal to help improve the team, it should be with an eye on the longer term. That might mean nothing gets done, but it also means they keep their farm in tact for future Pirates teams. The impulse might be to buy now and hope their luck continues, but the prudent move in the long-term is to seek help that will be with the team beyond 2011.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

41 Responses to “How Hunter Pence Fits in Pittsburgh”

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  1. Good analysis of Pence. I think the general feeling in Pittsburgh is that the team should use the payroll flexibility that they have to acquire rentals like Carlos Peña, Aramis Ramirez, or Carlos Beltran; guys that would require fewer prospects if the Pirates can take on a lot of the salary.

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  2. pirate says:

    “available” missing a letter in paragraph #3

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    • johnnycuff says:

      “pedantic” apparently missing from your personal dictionary

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      • LexDiamonds says:

        “Being helpful, not an asshole” apparently missing from your worldview.

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      • SKob says:

        How is nitpicking a spelling error in the comments section ‘being helpful’. You think its gonna get cahnged? You think he deosn’t know how to spel?

        Well actually, it did clear things up quite a bit for me. I was scouring the web for the meaning of this bizarre ‘avilable’ term.

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      • Brad says:

        As a blogger, I appreciate it when someone tastefully lets me know of an error. Any writer worth their salt, and yes there are few left, wants to be professional and anyone who aids that task is an asset.

        Thus, your comment is most likely made from a lack of experience, understanding of the ideals of professionalism or class. Hopefully, I am wrong but I doubt it.

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      • tynandaly says:

        Really great analysis, I love reading about situations like this.

        Spell check! Please, it’s not that hard. You’re a professional writer for God’s sake, please proofread before publishing. This happens much to often on this site.

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      • Kirkwood says:

        “Spell check! Please, it’s not that hard…much to often on this site.”

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  3. Dave I says:

    As a Mets fan, I’d love to see them partner with Pittsburgh for a Beltran trade, but he’d veto it in a heartbeat.

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    • Jordy says:

      Don’t be so sure he wouldn’t go to Pittsburgh. They’re playing great baseball right now, and the pitching staff has been lights out. If my memory serves me correctly, he’s always hit well at PNC Park. For a guy who probably doesn’t have too many seasons left on his knees, the postseason is a pretty strong motivator.

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    • James says:

      I could see Beltran being moved somewhere in August in the waiver period…

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  4. Interesting analysis, thanks.

    Local sports talk radio guy is saying that from what he is hearing the Astros asking price would be a combination of the 2 of the following: Starling Marte, Tony Sanchez and Stetson Allie. If that is the deal, I’d really be tempted if I’m Neal Huntington. Tony Sanchez has been disappointing so far (of course that can change), and the general feeling was he was picked to early in the draft to begin with. Allie is now projecting as a reliever. Marte looks good, but needs to work on plate discipline. I’d be comfortable losing Sanchez/Allie, the question for me is, is a inexpensive Marte > expensive Pence? More importantly, would Pence reduce flexibility to sign McCutchen long term?

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    • reillocity says:

      I think if you replaced Sanchez with Alvarez and possibly downgraded the pitcher from Allie, you’d be pretty close to what the Astros would want for Pence. They still see the currently-disabled Castro as their everyday catcher of the next decade, probably see no chance of keeping Bourn around past his arbitration years, and are desperately lacking organizationally in left-handed power.

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  5. GrtSm says:

    I once found a trade value calculator online, does anyone know where? I want to find out what Pence’s estimated value would be. I think it would take a decent haul for the Stros to move him, but I don’t think they would get a Jameson Taillon or Pedro Alvarez.

    Can anybody help me out with either Pence’s value, or finding that calculator?

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  6. Heyward says:

    I made a comment, that the Pirates buying would be a bad idea, on an article awhile ago and that they should instead sale high on some of their overachieving players to think for next year. I got 20 plus thumbs down for that comment. Typical fangraphs yes men agreeing with any article. They are due for so much regression in their rotation that giving up prospects for immediate help would be unwise. Eat crow.

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    • Kenny says:

      I agree. The Brewers or Cardinals will run away with that division and leave the Pirates missing their prospects.

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    • Pat says:

      Baseball is not played solely by numbers on a stat sheet, players are not robots. Do you mean to tell me Maholm and Karstens have gotten extremely lucky every time they took the mound? I fail to believe that. There is a certain feeling this team has that extends beyond each player’s individual value and they need to capitalize on this season while they can. Sure, some guys may regress, but they will also be getting healthy players back and some smart deadline acquisitions can offset that. It’s not easy to luck yourself to a winning record at this point in the season, they have to be doing something right.

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    • matt w says:

      Shouldn’t you wait to say “Eat crow” until the Pirates are actually out of contention?

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  7. Eminor3rd says:

    I wouldn’t think Pena would cost much of anything, and wouldn’t prevent them from making a bigger move on someone controllable. Would Pence be enough by himself? Maybe not, but what about Pence AND Pena?

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  8. westcoast hero says:

    Yes. Maholm and Karstens have been very lucky. “Certain feelings” are exactly what lead to franchise-crippling trades.

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    • Andy says:

      Maholm’s been more unlucky than lucky in my estimation

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      • Nick Fleder says:

        How so? This is curious. His BABIP is .48 points below his career norm, his FIP is 3.74, his xFIP is 4.02, his HR/FB is 3.1% under his career norm (1.0% lower than last year, .6% lower than his previous high), he’s walking people at a slightly higher rate than last year and directly at his career norm (3.06 BB/9 compared to a career average of 3.05 BB/9). His K/9 follows the same career similarities as his BB/9. So to me, this says he’s doing exactly the same thing, and the balls aren’t flying over the fence at the same pace and the balls put in play aren’t dropping. I still really like those FIP, xFIP #s, but he has no track record of beating them. His ERA is predictably higher than his FIP and xFIP over the course of his career.

        What I do like is the fact that he’s causing a ton of infield flys. 11.8% of balls put in play are easy pop up outs , but once again, it may regress (will regress some) all the way to his career norm of 7.7%. He has a great Defense behind him, but it’s hard to imagine it helping out such an astounding amount, especially when his GB% is lower than his career average.

        But here’s where my argument with myself gets interesting. He’s throwing 5.4% more Sliders than he ever has (16.9% compared to an average of 11.5%) and 5.1% fewer Curveballs than he ever has (12% compared to 17.1% career). Now, if someone can prove that Mr. Maholm’s slider is nasty and his curveballs are hangin’ (…lol), then I’ll start to believe that he’s a changed man.

        But overall, no, it seems to me like he’s been pretty darn lucky.

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  9. James says:

    If I were the Pirates, I would try to get Bartlett and/or Ludwick from the Padres – they seem like more affordable upgrades without future commitments. Given that the Pirates are essentially in a 4-team race with 3 teams that are arguably better than them, it makes no sense to reach on anyone to the extent it would compromise 2012 and beyond.

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    • matt w says:

      I agree with the general sentiment, but Bartlett isn’t an upgrade at all; he isn’t hitting much better than Ronny Cedeno even after you account for PETCO (his raw stat line is considerably worse), and his UZR has been well negative for the past three seasons.

      But I agree with the general idea; the Pirates have a bunch of potential rule 5 casualties for next year, and they could deal some of those for upgrades at the corners.

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      • johnny 5 says:

        i figure bartlett would probably hit better in the pirates lineup which actually boasts a few real deal major leaguers..+ you would be adding a legit basestealer
        call me crazy, but i know i wouldnt mind having him on the sox (red)

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  10. Colin says:

    I don’t understand why there is a view that the Pirates have a hole in the outfield. Alex Presley is tearing it up so far in the majors, as he has done in the minors in each of the last 2 seasons. I understand that BA has never been super-high on him, especially since he was organizational depth just 2 years ago, but he has been the Pirates best minor league player over the last 2 years, and the best hitter in each league he has played in over that span. When Tabata returns to the lineup, where exactly does Pence or Willingham fit? At least someone like Pena would cost effectively nothing other than money and organizational minor leaguers, and fill a potential hole on the lineup.

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  11. Feeding the Abscess says:


    Seriously, lefties hit well in PNC, and Venable’s road splits are a couple steps ahead of CarGo. On top of that, Venable will be much cheaper than someone like Pence.

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  12. JDub says:

    I’m having a hard time seeing how this organization will be willing to pay the “Crawford size” contract to keep McCutcheon in a few years. There is zero chance they would pay both Cutch and Pence.

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    • Nick Fleder says:

      No, and as someone pointed out, I don’t think they need to. If Alex Presely’s gonna be a major league staple, ‘Cutch, Tabata, and him would be a nice outfield. If not Presely, three or four years from now, when Tabata’s still team controlled and Cutch is still hypothetically in the middle of his fat contract extension, someone like Marte could come fill a gap that can be pressed over by… Presely. Or Garret Jones. Or a mish-mash.

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  13. JRoth says:

    I love how the Pirates, starting Brandon Wood at 3rd and another team’s #4 catcher every day, are “lucky.” A little more luck like that, and PNC Park will vanish in a sinkhole.

    The Pirates have 3 guys with career wRC+ of 100 or above coming off the DL in the next few weeks; each will be replacing a guy with a current wRC+ between 68 and 88. Maholm and Karstens are welcome to regress; the offense is about to get a lot more potent.

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  14. Robbie G. says:

    In my view, it is crucial for the Pirates organization to throw a bone to the fan base here. Pittsburgh has been awful for an extremely long time. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that some sort of record for years of futility had been broken by the Pirates organization in recent years. Here they are, though, above .500 at the All-Star Break, not far away from first place in a flawed (and therefore winnable) division, and the fans are starting to come to the ballpark, finally.

    It appears to me that the organization has to make what at least appears to be a good faith effort to try to get better via trade and win this division in order to send the desired message to the fan base. You want to sell more 2012 season tickets than 2011 season tickets, and the way to make this happen is by good P.R. (and, to a lesser extent, winning). To me, the goal this season is not so much to make the playoffs as it is to maintain this momentum and to get Pittsburgh area folks interested in their baseball team again. [It would, of course, be helpful if the team didn’t just fall apart in the second half, as well.]

    Therefore, trading for a Hunter Pence does not seem to be the way to go, from my perspective. That’s going too far, too soon, I think. I’d instead advocate for trading for Carlos Pena and, if possible, Jamey Carroll. Pena is an upgrade at 1B over the terrible Lyle Overbay, and it seems to me that Carroll would likely start at SS for this team (and be an upgrade at that spot, as well). I’d also like to see Pittsburgh acquire the proverbial “crafty veteran” starting pitcher, a guy who would instantly become one of the Pirates’ top 3-4 starters, someone durable and who the fans could get behind. The guy who immediately come to mind here is Carl Pavano (very reasonably priced this season and next season, the final year in the two-year deal he signed this past winter). Like Pena and Carroll, Pavano would not cost the Pirates a whole lot in terms of prospects, yet he a) represents a legitimate upgrade and b) sends the correct message to fans.

    Pittsburgh probably gets a bit better by trading for these sorts of players, probably will not have to give up much at all via trade to get them, and, most importantly, sends the correct message to metro area (and beyond) residents, who will start thinking of a Pirates game as a legitimate entertainment option and of their franchise as a legitimate MLB ballclub for the first time in almost twenty years.

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    • Jordan says:

      I agree with the gist – that sending the right message to fans without giving up good prospects is the most important thing for the pirates. But Pavano is not a realistic trade target for them. He has at least $6 million in surplus value left in his contract, so he won’t come cheaply. And the pirates likely won’t want to resign him (he’ll be 36 when his deal ends) so he’ll only be with the team through 2012.

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  15. Hal Jordan says:

    I know it’s a short sample size, but Pence’s numbers are arguably better at PNC Park than MMP. The author of this article failed to take Pence’s Home/Potential New Home splits into account.

    MMP – .301 .351 .505 .856

    PNC – .330 .386 .491 .877

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    • sen-baldacci says:

      its good to bring that up, but lets face it, he’s hitting against pittsburgh pitchers when he plays at pnc, and therefore would have much better numbers. They have always stunk, and although they are having success this year, it feels as fleeting as Vogelsong’s success should be. time will tell.

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  17. Justin says:

    Should the Pirates continue this run towards the playoffs, Alex Presley has to be a huge part of it. I think it would be a huge mistake for Neal Huntington to go anywhere near Hunter Pence. The prospects it would take to get him, plus his inflating salary plus being a righty are all terrible fits for Pittsburgh at this time. I don’t view the corner outfield as that big of a problem for the Buccos, but having Lyle Overbay get AB’s is the problem. If any addition outside of pitching is made it should be to get a power hitting first baseman, on the cheap….Carlos Pena. Sliding his bat into the 4 hole behind Mccutchen and moving Neil Walker up to the 2 behind Presley would form a formidable top of the lineup for this year, and continuing the stretch run.

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  18. John says:

    Hunter Pence isnt going anywhere, unless the Astros want to play the rest of the season with nobody watching them. He is a homegrown hero with a high upside toward Texas Icon. Reference John McMullen letting Nolan Ryan go to the Texas Rangers, how did that one workout for the Astros?
    All the best to the Pirates, they have done a remarkable job of turning things around and I for one am happy to see them contending again. Pittsburgh is a great baseball town with great history from Forbes Field and Bill Mazaroski to Three Rivers and the Lumber company of the seventies with Stargell, Oliver, and Sanguillen to the We are family group with Parker and Pops and Chuck Tanner… But Pence will not be a part of that role call anytime soon. Go bet that traitor Beltran and his jerk of an agent, pony up his extortion money for the rest of the season then watch him walk out of town like he did here in Houston, while blaming it on his wife for wanting to live in NY….. If you get him, he will help, but dont give him any love he is a baseball gigolo of the highest degree and his agent if the scum of the earth.

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