Why the Astros Should Trade Hunter Pence

The Astros might have the most tradable chits this week, but that doesn’t mean they’re in an enviable position. With ownership in transition and a GM who will, in all likelihood, be searching for employment this winter, there aren’t many easy decisions. New ownership has given a directive to cut payroll by about $15 million next year, but that certainly comes with the caveat of making moves that benefit the team long-term. That’s what makes the deadline so difficult for them. Can they get more value now, or would they be best served in the off-season, when there might be more buyers?

The question applies to a few players on the Astros roster, but perhaps none greater than Hunter Pence. His name appears in trade rumors almost as frequently as Carlos Beltran‘s, though his status in the trade market is less certain. The Astros are under no obligation to trade him now, but given the need among contenders for a quality outfield, particularly in the corners, they figure to find a few palatable deals proposed this week.

Trading the face of any franchise is always a tough proposition. While we can take the far view and see the long-term benefit for the team, the closer view reveals other complications. There’s the matter of fan support, which can erode after said player leaves and is replaced by someone necessarily less recognizable and not as good. It would certainly hurt the Astros fan base in the short-term to deal three franchise players in two years, and that could be a major consideration in the Pence trades. But a potential deal makes so much sense in the long-term that they might have to bite the bullet now, hoping to regain those fans when their long-term plan comes to fruition.

Part of the Astros’ challenge for next year is to cut payroll by about $15 million, to about $60. That’s not an easy proposition to begin with; only six teams have a payroll below that limit, and only a third of the league is under $70 million. Further hampering the Astros are hefty and largely untradeable commitments for 2012. Carlos Lee will make his $19 million, and Brett Myers will make his $12. That’s already more than half of their budget on two players who could easily combine for around 5 WAR. Add in a $10.5 million commitment to Wandy Rodriguez and another $5.5 million to Michael Bourn, they’re already at $47 million for four players, meaning they’d have just $13 million for the remaining 21.

Pence makes nearly $7 million this year, and with the kind of number he’s producing there’s a good chance he’ll make at least $10 in this third go-round with the arbitration process. Clearly the Astros can’t field 20 players for just $3 million, so they’ll have to deal at least one of Rodriguez, Pence, and Bourn. Of those Bourn might be the easiest to trade, since he’s relatively cheap, but that doesn’t help the Astros much. It would leave them under $10 million to field 20 players, which basically means league minimum contracts all around. That’s not a realistically feasible scenario. They’ll have to trade Pence or Rodriguez along the way. In terms of building future Astros teams, the return they’d get for Pence will probably help more.

That leaves only the question of whether to trade Pence now, or wait until the field opens up a bit more. That usually depends on the market, but there are plenty of contenders who would benefit greatly from an upgrade in the outfield. In fact, there are four contenders in the bottom third of the league in WAR from their outfielders, and two more check in at Nos. 18 and 19. That doesn’t even mention the Pirates, a team that could also use help at an outfield corner. With the market so relatively open at this point in the season, the Astros could certainly find a worthy bounty for Pence that will help their long-term contention plans. Here’s the quick list.

Angels: They’re the worst in terms of OF WAR, but as mentioned last week, they don’t have an open spot at a corner. Pence would be an immediate upgrade over both Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter, but they’re not going anywhere.

Tigers: Brennan Boesch has hit quite well in his sophomore season, but the other corner has been something of a black hole. Andy Dirks and Magglio Ordonez just haven’t been getting the job done. Pence could step in and help them in just about every way. Comerica might be a pitcher-friendly park in general, but it’s a bit more favorable to righties than it is lefties.

Indians: With Shin-Soo Choo looking at a late-season return, if he returns at all, and with Grady Sizemore‘s questionability, the Indians could definitely use some help in the outfield. Pence could take over in right for the Austin Kearns/Travis Buck platoon, or even take left, with Michael Brantley moving to center. This move would be with an eye to next year, too, as a Pence-Brantley-Choo outfield could help them continue contending.

Phillies: They’re clearly feeling the void left by Jayson Werth, and a right-handed outfield bat seems to be just what they need now. They’re also strong in the lower level minors, which should appeal to the Astros, since that’s where most of their talent lies now.

Giants: This again would help in the longer term, since they’re short on quality outfielders after this season. Not that they’re very set on outfielders in the present; their outfielders’ collective 4.9 WAR ranks No. 19 in the league.

Braves: While the Braves, in the aggregate, are little better than the Giants and Phillies, they have a few issues that will likely prevent a Pence trade. They do have Martin Prado and Jason Heyward in the corners, but they could use Prado as a roaming player for the time being. There’s always the injury situation with Chipper Jones, too, which could render him more useful as a third-baseman for next year. The Braves certainly have the prospects to swing a deal, too, and Pence would be a good fit in their lineup. The only issue is that Turner Field doesn’t rate well for right-handed batters.

Pirates: Jose Tabata recently suffered a setback, and his replacement, the hot-hitting rookie Alex Presley, just hit the DL with a thumb injury. The Pirates also aren’t getting tons of production out of right field, where Garret Jones has dropped to a .322 wOBA. I’ve said that I don’t think Pence is a great fit for Pittsburgh, but there is a clear opportunity for them to add an outfielder, and Pence is the best option for a team that is built to contend in the near future.

There also might be some interest from the Reds, though Chris Heisey and Jonny Gomes have been serviceable, and the Red Sox, though Josh Reddick‘s rise to prominence might make them more hesitant to swing a big deal. Even if both of those teams are out of it, there’s still a robust immediate market for Pence’s services.

There is a good chance that a team could get more for Pence now, when he could help in the current pennant race as well as the next two seasons, than in the off-season, when there are fewer pennant implications and only two years of service time. If there were a limited market for corner outfielders, the situation might be a bit different. But there is clearly a need among many teams, and Pence represents the second best option on the market, and the best option for a team seeking help beyond 2011, or that doesn’t want to trade for a mere rental. The suitors should, in theory, be lining up.

The only wrench here is the Astros state of flux. Chances are that the current GM, Ed Wade, won’t be around once the new owner, Jim Crane, assumes full control of the team. In that way, he might not want a lame duck GM making such a crucial move. Chances are Wade would run all proposals by Crane and his people, but they might prefer to have their own GM make the decision on Pence. It makes the situation a degree more difficult to read.

Considering the state of the Astros organization and the cost-cutting decree from the new owner, it’s a virtual certainty that Pence will wear a different uniform by Opening Day 2012. He’s one of their more expensive players, yet he’s one that will return the best long-term value. It will hurt, certainly, to lose the face of the franchise, especially after they lost two familiar faces in 2010. But the long-term good of the franchise has to come first, and Pence probably doesn’t play into those plans. If the Astros want the best deal, they’ll probably find it in this market. With so many teams needing outfield bats and with so few quality options available, they could receive their best offer for Pence this week. The only question is of whether they trust Wade to make that determination.




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


38 Responses to “Why the Astros Should Trade Hunter Pence”

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  1. Bascinator says:

    Any idea what Houston’s asking price is for Pence? It seems to me that he would command 2 or 3 top-level prospects based on the demand for outfielders on contending teams.

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    • OremLK says:

      Rumor has it they’re asking for 2-3 ML-ready “impact talents”, whatever that turn of phrase means. Could just be posturing though. The Phillies seem to be the current favorites (yet again) to trade for Pence, and I would imagine the Astros have asked them for Brown, a demand I assume Ruben Amaro rejected. Whether either side backs down by the deadline, we’ll see.

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      • Bill says:

        Why would they want “Major League Ready” talent? They are not in any shape to contend in the near future. It seems like they would be better getting more lower level prospects so that they are ready when the team is back into position to compete. That being said, maybe the dearth of talent at the AAA level in Houston makes it necessary to have MLB ready players if they are to field a team next year.

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      • OremLK says:

        Don’t shoot the messenger, that’s just what the rumors are saying. With that said, it’s possible they intend to spend lots in free agency around, say, 2013, with the core of average-ish young ML players they’re compiling.

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  2. Mr. wOBAto says:

    If Barmes, Bourn, Rodriguez, and Pence and not moved for prospects by this time next year then Astros fans should sue Ed Wade for malpractice

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    • hk says:

      Agreed, although if I was in the process of purchasing that team, I would not want Ed Wade heading the rebuilding process and in charge of determining the best return for the players you’ve named.

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      • aladou says:

        He did pretty well in Philadelphia.

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      • hk says:

        No, his scouting director did pretty well while Wade was the GM in Philadelphia. His trades were generally bad.

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      • Mr. wOBAto says:

        Tough to argue with Wade’s successes as far a acquiring amateur talent, from grabbing Victorino and Werth in the rule 5, to drafting Howard, Utley, Hamels and Bourn as a GM. He even made quite a few nifty trades along the way and never handed out any embarassing contracts(Amaro we are looking your way).

        That said his FA signings in Houston have been awful(Lyons) his trades outside of the Bourn trade have been bad(Tejada, Paulino, Lindstrom), and his Drafts/acquistion of draft picks is far from AAesque.

        Wade hasn’t run the Astros into ground(they were in a pretty bad nosedive when he got there) but he hasn’t exactly righted the ship either.

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      • hk says:

        Mr. wOBAto,

        Scouting directors, not GM’s, usually get the credit or blame a team’s drafts. Wade was the GM when the Phillies took Victorino in the Rule 5 – a nice move for sure – but Pat Gillick was the GM who signed Werth as a free agent. Exactly which nifty trades did Wade make as the GM in Philly? Surely not the ones in which he traded away Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling or even Placido Polanco.

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      • Mr. wOBAto says:

        HK,
        I assume you are giving Wade credit on players like Rolen and Rollins?

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      • Mr. wOBAto says:

        The Rolen trade return was decent considering how he was forcing his way out of town, as was the Thome return considering how he had no leverage. I would argue the first few drafts after a first time GM takes over he has a lot of imput, I can’t imagine Utley, Burrell, Myers and Byrd hadn’t been on Wade’s radar as an Assistant GM with a background in scouting.

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      • Sultan of Schwwingg says:

        Anyone know what happened to all those Sabean is by far the most moronic GM in baseball threads? I went looking the other day but they all vanished for some odd reason.

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      • NEPP says:

        Marti Wolever and Mike Arbuckle did a fantastic job of building up the Phillies minor leagues and core players. Wade had ZERO to do with either.

        Wolever is still in charge of their scouting and is the big reason their farm system is still so strong despite all the trades.

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      • Mr. wOBAto says:

        I a not pretending to be a Wade expert, going almost exclusively off of fuzzy memory from afar and the GM History on MLBTR where they have the Thome trade attributed to Wade. I do think that a guy who is coming up through the organization with an eye on the GM job would have to keep an eye up and coming talent

        As someone who watched my team pass at the last minute on a generational talent a GM usually has a big hand in who a team picks at least in the first three rounds, a smart GM gets his input from trusted members of his scouting staff but at the end of the day it is the head guy’s job on the line.

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    • hk says:

      The Thome trade was Gillick.

      The Rolen trade is debatable. Yes, he got Polanco in the Rolen deal, but its hard to know or remember what else might have been on the table. He also later devalued Placido with the David Bell signing and undersold him for Ugie, but that’s besides the point. The point of my original comment was that Wade has rarely gotten good value when trading away established veterans (Rolen, Schilling, Polanco and Oswalt come to my mind) like he will be doing if he leads HOU’s rebuilding.

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      • NEPP says:

        The Thome trade would have been really good…had the Phillies hung onto and actually developed Gio Gonzalez.

        Instead, they screwed up his development to the point that he repeated AA when they handed him back in the Freddy Garcia deal a year later. Now he’s an elite starter in the AL…right in line with his ceiling at the time of the deal.

        Just a terrible deal overall and one of Gillick’s biggest blunders.

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  3. cherub_daemon says:

    Your comment on Magglio Ordonez may not be accurate going forward; since returning from rehabbing his ankle, he’s been an above-average hitter. This can be seen by looking at his Apr/May split vs. June/July.

    Pence may be an upgrade, especially given Magglio’s need for more rest, but it’s almost certainly not the Pence v. black hole situation that you imply. The current upgrade would not merit trading away the haul that would be required to get Pence.

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  4. NLeininger says:

    Wade has done well in trades so far in Houston. His FA signings have been abysmal, but he’s gotten good return for the MLB players he’s acquired, while the MiLB players for the most part are incomplete. He’s also done well with the waiver claims. I wouldn’t fear him making bad decisions on trades at this deadline. Really MLB is screwing the Astros right now, by handling the Dodgers mess before approving Crane.

    The only bad decision would be to not trade Barmes, Bourn, Pence, and Wandy/Myers.

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    • NEPP says:

      Brett Wallace was a terrible trade…especially considering they could have simply move Lee to 1B to fill that hole and focused on a true need. Instead, Wade targeted a former top prospect whose star had been fading for a couple seasons.

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  5. Bungalo says:

    I would really LOVE to see Pence go to the yankees. They could really use another strong outfield bat and they have Montero and Nova which is more than enough to seal the deal. Honestly I think Pence has the sheer athleticism to play any position on the diamond. So if A-rod or Jeter needs a day off, BAM you got a killer replacement to spell them. Pence also pitched a good bit back in his high-school days so that mitigates the need for another arm too. Getting Hunter Pence in reality would be like getting 6 players in one.

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    • Phillie697 says:

      It’s not even that funny… Work on your punchline.

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    • Justin says:

      First off. That is a terrible idea, and completely insane assumption that Hunter Pence could be a formidable 3rd baseman and shortstop. And to assume that he could be a bullpen arm, you have completely lost your mind. Quite frankly you shouldn’t even be allowed to post on this website anymore. And secondly, even if the Yankees were to get him and for some crazy reason they take Swish or Gardner out of the lineup and let him play a corner spot he would be a huge disappointment. He is made for a park like Houston’s and has shown that with his career triple slash home/away.

      Home: .299/.350/.502
      Away: .281/.327/.457

      Hunter is vastly overrated, and that will show most likely wherever he is traded, unless it is somewhere like Boston where he can follow in Youk, and Jason Bay’s paths and make a living pounding baseballs off the monster.

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      • Justin's Sarcasm Detector says:

        I’m broken.

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      • Steve says:

        First time on the internet?

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      • James Lewis says:

        While I agree with your first few points, saying that Pence is vastly overrated because of his home/road splits is not exactly fair. Since 2007 (when Pence broke into the league), the league average splits are:

        Home: .267/.342/.423
        Away: .257/.328/.401

        Pence is clearly well above average both at home and away, and the differential between his home and road slash line is only slightly greater than league average. While he does appear to be getting some benefit from his home park, it doesn’t appear to be all that significant.

        As for Jason Bay, let’s not forget that he only had 850 PAs as a member of the Red Sox, half of which would have come away from Fenway. In the over 3000 PAs he had in Pittsburgh before moving to Boston he had some pretty stellar numbers, so its not exactly fair to suggest that the only thing that propelled him to being considered an elite player was the Green Monster.

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  6. Tyrannosaurus Ross says:

    I really want to see Pence come to the Braves. McLouth hasn’t been performing anywhere near his Pittsburgh form since we got him and Schafer has been spotty. When it comes to a right handed bat, Dan Uggla just hasn’t been himself all season. We are going to need all the help we can get if we want to keep the NL East race close before the Philies run away with it. I just hope we don’t end up giving away Teheran or Vizcaino. I’m OK with Minor being delt.

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    • NEPP says:

      Uggla has really come back into form lately. He might be back to the .800+ OPS slugging 2B we all remember. Of course, defensively, he makes a great LF but that’s another point altogether.

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  7. ezb230 says:

    why trade him? they have the record in baseball and a bad (if improving) farm system. this doesn’t seem to require a whole article.

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    • ezb230 says:

      the worst record in baseball is what they have. left that out there.

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    • walt526 says:

      Did you read the article? Because the new owners have ordered Wade to cut 1/4th of the payroll and two of the biggest contracts (Lee for $19M and Myers for $12M) are untradeable.

      So they are left having to deal either Pence or Rodriguez, who are really the only two making any large amounts of money and are still seen as valuable by other teams.

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  8. Texasaaa says:

    Wade should be tarred and feathered for dismantling the Astros in lew of his own pocketbook. He’s going to get 3/4 Billion $ for the Stros and leave us fans ( that gave him all that $) with nothing more than a AA team.
    I’ll never sound another dime there until the new ownership comes and shows interest in building back our team.

    How does Drayton even put his face in public without someone wiping that greedy smile off his face?
    Thanks for nothing Drayton.

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  9. tom s. says:

    how about “because pence has a .369 BABIP which will only decline as the season goes on, and because his current shiny, luck-inflated offensive stats will distract the less sophisticated GMs from the fact his defense is in serious decline, and because the astros should sell high on this guy before he regresses to the slightly above average outfielder that he is”?

    if the astros let ordinary luck and regression catch up with pence, they’ll have missed an important window to cash in on one of their only meaningful chips.

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    • reillocity says:

      Pence’s defense is in serious decline? Really? Perhaps you should lay off the UZR, stathead. I guess by your standards Michael Bourn’s defense is in tremendous decline since his UZR/150 has dropped from +20.6 in 2010 to -6.3 in 2011 and that Carlos Lee’s LF defense is vastly improved since his UZR/150 has jumped from -20.7 in 2010 to +20.1 in 2011 (yes, that’s not a typo)? Pence is an above average but not great fielder when you take into consideration his range, speed, jumps, arm strength, arm accuracy, error frequency, etc.

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  10. Joey B says:

    You have to trade him because you’re going to finish last almost no matter what you do. And he’s gone after 2012 no matter what you do. Does it matter even a whit to Astros’ fans if they win 55 instead of 50? Heck, does it matter if they even win 60? For all the ridicule that PT got a couple of years ago for trading everyone, it was the right move. When you’re winning, go all in. When you’re losing, go out.

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  11. brendan says:

    joe, do you think pence would be a big upgrade over hunter for the angels? sure his 2011 has been much better, but they have put up similar WARs the last 2 seasons (7.4 WAR 2009-10 for both guys). I would expect some regression for both, with the result that pence wouldn’t end up helping that much.

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  12. benjipants says:

    I don’t think it’s really that Pence is overrated–he’s a good player. He’s just being overvalued. Put in perspective, would Denard Span attract this kind of package? No, but he should, if Pence can (even if he doesn’t have the same history as Pence).

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