First thing's first: Hunter Pence would upgrade this Phillies line-up. Significantly. There really is not much of an argument to be made against that statement. He would enable the Phillies to do a number of different things with their line-up, whether it is hitting Pence behind Ryan Howard, or hitting him third in front of the big guy. A line-up that goes Rollins, Utley, Pence, Howard, Victorino, Polanco, Ibanez, Ruiz would look mighty nice.
But the question isn't whether Pence would upgrade the line-up. It is how much he would upgrade the line-up. And whether the weight of that upgrade is worth the weight of prospects the Astros are seeking in exchange for Pence's services. And whether the balance between the two is greater than one that could be achieved through another trade or series of trades that does not involve Pence. Is Jared Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, and Jesse Biddle for two-and-a-half years of Pence better than Cosart and lesser prospects for two or three months of Carlos Beltran? And is any of that better than a handful of B-level prospects for a reliever or two and a lesser known bat or two?
These are the types of things that Ruben Amaro Jr. and his commrades in the front office are pondering right now. It is not as easy as yelling, "Get Pence Now!" or "Get Beltran Now!" or "Don't trade away Cosart!"
The trade market is not a vacuum. It is, well, a market. A free market, or at least as close to the equivalent as one can get when it comes to a handful of contenders looking to swap goods with a handful of non-contenders. This is not Wal-Mart. Hunter Pence is not dangling from his toes in the sporting good aisle with a pricetag strung through his right nostril. You can go on and on and on about what Pence or Beltran are worth. But in a free market, goods and services are worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay.
All of this is stuff that most of you know. And it is stuff that has led to the current standoff we see -- or, rather, don't see -- between the buyers and the sellers of the world. The Mets think Beltran is worth X. The Phillies and Giants and Braves think Beltran is worth Y. The only way for the Phillies to assure that they get their man is by paying X. Beyond that, they are left to hope that their offer proves to be the best one on the market. With Roy Oswalt last year, they were essentially bidding against themselves. Houston had already decided to move Oswalt. Oswalt had a short list of teams to which he would accept a trade. The Rangers had already landed Cliff Lee. It was basically the Cardinals and the Phillies.
This year is different. For Beltran, there are a variety of suitors. Yes, he has a no-trade clause. But reports indicate that he would accept a deal to a number of teams. The only stipulation we've heard thus far is that he does not want to be a designated hitter. He would not be a designated hitter in Atlanta or San Fran or Milwaukee. He might not even be one in Texas. So there are more buyers for Beltran this year than there were for Oswalt last year. That affects his price. Maybe all of those teams hold firm right up until the trade deadline. But history suggests one of them will buckle, seeing three months of Beltran as a huge increase to their championship hopes.
The Pence situation is trickier. The Mets have little to gain by holding on to Beltran. They are in a similar position to the Astros last season with Oswalt. But Pence is under contract through 2013. He is a popular player in Houston, one of the few name brand athletes the club can market. Even if Houston does not swing a deal this summer, they could still deal him in the offseason, or in the middle of next season, and still get an attractive deal because Pence still won't be a rent-a-player.
Which begs the question: Can a team possibly make a smart deal and still land Pence, since the very nature of the situation almost assures that they will have to over-pay?
As you ponder that question, let's take a deeper look at Pence in an attempt to get a handle on what, exactly, a team like the Phillies would be getting.
1) The case for caution
The numbers indicate that Pence is in the middle of a career year. He is hitting .308 with a .356 on base percentage and .470 slugging percentage for a solid .827 OPS. He has hit 11 home runs, and stolen seven bases, and has only struck out 84 times. But a closer look at some of his rate stats suggest that Pence's performance isn't much different than the ones he has posted throughout his career, when he has 162-game averages of .290/.339/.479, 124 strikeouts and 25 home runs.
He isn't striking out less, walking more, making more contact or hitting for more power. In fact, as you will see in the chart below, he is striking out with greater frequence (AB/SO), walking about the same (BB%), hitting fewer home runs (AB/HR), hitting fewer fly balls for home runs (HR/FB), hitting fewer extra base hits (XBH/PA%), hitting fewer hits that go for extra bases (XBH/H%), and putting about the same number of balls in play (IP%).
Pence is hitting more line drives (LD%), and more of the balls that he is putting in play are ending up as base hits (BABIP). The BABIP disparity is the big one to look at. Because his power rates are either even or down, the disparity between his career BABIP and his 2011 BABIP suggest that more groundballs are leaking through the infield, or more soft fly balls are dropping in between or in front of outfielders. We can't totally dismiss Pence's inflated batting average. But statistical research suggests that those types of hits end up evening out. At some point, the groundballs are hit directly at fielders instead of in between them, and the bloopers hang in the air just long enough for outfielders to get to them.
|In Play %
|Line Drive %
As we said above, even a career-average Hunter Pence would bolster this Phillies' line-up, particularly since he is right-handed. But a career average Hunter Pence only reaches base about 34 percent of the time, which isn't a great mark. It is solid. But he is by no means a "high on base percentage guy." And while he definitely hits for some power, he is by no means a power hitter, even when you compare him to guys like Jayson Werth or Josh Willingham.
Beltran? He is a high on base percentage guy. He is a power hitter. Pence? He does not fall into either category. He is a solid ballplayer who would make a solid contribution to a contending team, particularly one that already has the weapons that the Phillies have.
Pence also brings a lot of immeasurables to the table. He is a strong defender, a good baserunner, and by all accounts a good teammate. Furthermore, he has always hit well with runners in scoring position and in high leverage situations. He also has good numbers against relief pitchers, something that can not be said for several hitters in the Phillies line-up.
Long story short, Hunter Pence is a good ballplayer. But I'm not sure that you can categorize him as an impact bat. The problem is, in order to land his services, a team like the Phillies will probably have to pay an impact-bat pricetag.
Which brings us back to the question: What is Hunter Pence worth? A trio of potential impact players in Domonic Brown and Jonathan Singleton and Jared Cosart? One man's opinion: Singleton and Cosart, sure. But Domonic Brown? Really?
I realize this blog post doesn't provide many answers. Hopefully, though, we can keep a guy like Pence in the proper perspective.
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