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Examining a Hunter Pence Trade

The folks over at ESPN’s SweetSpot network do some of the best and most-informed short-form baseball writing on the internet, and not only the main page but the network of team-centered blogs are must-reads for the kind of baseball fan that spends afternoons two months before the trade deadline speculating on what blockbuster deals might put a contender over the top for the stretch run. However, one SweetSpot writer, Dave Schoenfeld, posted something this morning that caused a momentary panic in the Phillies’ internet community, namely, that the Phillies and Astros would both be better served by a trade of Hunter Pence for Domonic Brown and Jarred Cosart. I respect Schoenfeld quite a bit, but in this case, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with him. Here’s why:

First of all, the basic assertion, that the Astros should trade Pence and the Phillies would be better off trading for Pence, is absolutely correct, and is hardly a novel idea. Pence is an athletic, right-handed-hitting corner outfielder who is under team control for the next two-and-a-half seasons–precisely the type of player the Phillies could use. The Phillies, between Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, Brown, John Mayberry, Ross Gload, and Ben Francisco, do not have a single good defensive outfielder among them. Ibanez, for a long time, battled left field the way one might wrestle a crocodile, but he’s not getting to as many balls as he used to and those balls he misses, because of his position, go for extra bases. Victorino and Francisco are both very good athletes with outstanding throwing arms but neither is adept at tracking fly balls, particularly for people who are paid to do so for a living. Gload is a first baseman. And Brown and Mayberry have the athleticism to play the outfield well, but neither has been around long enough to develop much of a track record.

But where Pence would fit in best is as a hitter. In parts of five major league seasons, Pence has consistently shown the ability to hit 25 home runs a year from the right side and hit for a decent average, even if his stolen base totals (a career 56-for-91) are truly dreadful and even if he doesn’t show tremendous plate discipline. But while Pence isn’t a great player, he’s certainly good enough–assuming Chase Utley returns to health, a team with the Phillies’ pitching and infield defense doesn’t need Pence to hit like Mickey Mantle to win the pennant. The advantages of trading for Pence are clear, and while I won’t go into tremendous depth about it, Eric Seidman did a couple weeks ago, so if you’re not as familiar with the Astros’ right fielder, feel free to go read this.

But to trade Brown and Cosart to get him? Pence would have to hit, if not like Mickey Mantle, than at least like Carlos Gonzalez or Matt Holliday, and he’s simply not that type of player. Let’s compare Pence to Jayson Werth. Both are athletic, right-handed corner outfielders, and if the Phillies traded for Pence today, they’d get him for his age 28-through-30 seasons, or the same age Werth was his first three seasons in Philadelphia.

Over that time, Werth averaged a batting average/OBP/slugging line of .276/.376/.494, and if you include 2010, those numbers go up to .282/.380/.506–that’s 15.3 wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference, in three and a half seasons of everyday play. Pence, from Opening Day 2008 to today, in almost the exact same number of plate appearances as Werth from 2007 to 2010, posted a .280/.331/.466, stealing 15 fewer bases and being caught 22 more times, and posting an OPS+ 18 points lower than Werth’s. If we’re going to talk about the numbers of an elite corner outfielder, Pence falls short.

The Phillies have built their teams since 2008 largely on developing promising prospects, such as Brown and Cosart, then flipping them for top-level pitchers. The reason this has worked is that none of the prospects they’ve traded away have amounted to much. Here, for instance, is the total list of players traded to acquire Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt: Mike Costanzo, Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary, Adrian Cardenas, Matt Spencer, Josh Outman, Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Michael Taylor, Travis d’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, Anthony Gose, Jonathan Villar, and J.A. Happ. Eight of those sixteen players haven’t even made the majors yet with their new teams, and the remaining eight have posted a total of 11.6 WAR, or about a season and a half of Roy Halladay. Between 16 players. And half of that value belongs to Michael Bourn on his own.

Granted, some of those players, most likely Drabek, could mature into stars, but it’s unlikely, as most of the rest have fallen on hard times either by injury or development problems. And that’s why the Phillies’ trade strategy has worked so well: they’ve wound up giving up relatively little to get a lot.

I brought this very topic up in an idle conversation I was having over the weekend, and given Houston’s rather dire situation, and that Pence will most likely leave as a free agent before they contend, the Astros might as well deal him now. And I said specifically that I’d give up any prospect in the Phillies’ system apart from Brown, Cosart, or Jonathan Singleton to get him.

Why are Brown and Cosart different? Well, they’re better than the detritus the Phillies jettisoned to get the likes of Blanton, Lee, and so on. Say what you will about Brown, but he’s still only 23, was relatively late to serious amateur baseball, and in high-A ball or better, has a career OPS of .900 or better at every level. He’s been a top-50 prospect three years running and still hasn’t really gotten his chance. If we’re counting on Hunter Pence to deliver a .280/.330/.450 line (again, a good-but-not-great line for a corner outfielder) for $8 million or more (which he’ll probably get from arbitration), I’m not convinced Dom Brown couldn’t do that or even better for the league minimum–in fact, I wouldn’t trade Brown for Pence straight up.

Throw in Cosart, and it gets worse. A 6-foot-3 Texan who turns 21 tomorrow, Cosart was, like Brown, a late-round draft-and-follow prospect who has been lights-out everywhere he’s gone in the minor leagues. He’s a hard-throwing righty with good control who strikes out a batter per inning. Cosart ranked at No. 70 on the Baseball America list before this season, and while he’s still a couple seasons away, he could be the eventual replacement for Roy Oswalt or even Roy Halladay, if he leaves after 2013. Guys who project to be top-line starters, as Cosart does, are hard to come by, and it should take a better player than Pence to convince Ruben Amaro to give him up.

Ultimately, I think Pence can be had for a cheaper price than Brown and/or Cosart, and I’d be happy for the Phillies to get him. I like what he represents: a right-handed bat, decent outfield defense, and youth. But that we’re calling trading for a 28-year-old five-year veteran a youth movement is troubling.

The big issue here is not competing in 2011. The Phillies have proved that they can do that without doing a thing–it’s competing in 2014, when the Lakewood BlueClaws team that won the South Atlantic League last year puts on takes a shot at the NL East. The Phillies are by far the oldest team among the oldest teams in baseball (Got that wrong the first time–it had been true for the past 2 or 3 years), and while there’s something to be said for worrying about today and letting tomorrow take care of itself, I’d be cautious about overpaying in prospects for a stopgap. After all, without the likes of Brown and Cosart, there may be no one around to take care of 2014 for you.

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