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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.