Breaking Down the Hunter Pence Trade

Late last night, the news broke that another important trade had gone down in the baseball world, as the Astros shipped starting right fielder Hunter Pence to the Phillies for prospects Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Josh Zeid, and a player to be named.

As the Phillies reinforce their win-now mentality and the Astros continue to look toward the future, let’s take a look at what went down here.

I’ll start with my first thought about this trade, which is basically “Wow, what a deal for Houston.”

The Astros are 35-71 this year. They’re changing ownership and cutting salary. They don’t have a great farm system, so contention in the next couple of years is extraordinarily improbably.

And Hunter Pence, arbitration-eligible through 2013, wasn’t going to be part of a winning Astros team. They didn’t really have the money, under their new and more constrained budget, to keep him without unloading many of their other established players, so there was simply no way he was a realistic fit with Houston anymore.

That said, Pence is a valuable player. All this trade hype seems to have suddenly taken him from underrated to overrated, but the bottom line is that he’s a solid defensive right fielder who can be counted on to hit .280-.300 with 20-25 homers. In 2009 and 2010, he hit .282 with 25 homers–this year, a BABIP spike has taken his average to .308, but he’s only cracked 11 long bombs. Still, he’s a consistent player who’s entering his prime and will no doubt be a big improvement over Raul Ibanez and Ben Francisco, who combined for -1.3 WAR this year.

While the Astros really had little use for Pence given their situation, somebody that valuable isn’t somebody you trade for just anyone. In Cosart and Singleton, though, Houston came out very well.

Obviously, both prospects are highly acclaimed. Singleton is viewed as a potential monster with the bat, and the Astros were pushing for him as the centerpiece of the Roy Oswalt deal last year and were rebuffed, which says a lot about how highly he was valued. Cosart is viewed as a high-ceiling arm.

Needless to say, both players are under team control for six years, and six years of those two are far more valuable to a 35-71 team than 2 1/2 years of Pence.

It’s also worth noting that Singleton and Cosart are established enough prospects that Houston’s haul isn’t entirely projection-based. Not only do scouts praise both players, but they’ve performed well in the minors and shown that they can actualize their tools to some degree. Both players were in High-A Clearwater this year. Their stats:

Singleton: .284/.387/.413, 83/56 K/BB in 93 games
Cosart: 79/43 K/BB in 108 innings, 7 HR, 3.92 ERA

Keep in mind that both players are very young for the level. Cosart turned 21 two months ago, and Singleton is still a teenager.

Overall, these two are perfect prospects for the Houston system. They’re established enough that we can say that the hype is not merely projection–both players had huge years in 2010 and have performed solidly this year–but they’re still far away enough that they won’t be playing in Houston for the next year or two. And that’s a good thing–years of service time shouldn’t be wasted on teams as bad as this year’s (and probably next year’s) Astros. By the time Singleton and Cosart are up, Houston should have had a chance to restock its system and come up with some sort of concrete plan for the future.

In the meantime, they also got a player in Zeid who’s flourished since moving to the bullpen in Double-A, with a 24/2 K/BB in 16 innings. The 24-year-old could be in Houston quickly, and he’s the sort of low-upside player who could make a lot of sense eating seventh innings for the Astros while they wait for their young talent to mature.

It’s worth noting, in the aftermath of this deal, that both Singleton and Cosart will be moving from one of the most pitcher-friendly High-A ballparks to the most hitter-friendly park in the entire minor leagues, so don’t be surprised if Singleton’s numbers suddenly explode and Cosart has some problems there.

It’s more difficult to explain away the Phillies’ side of this deal, but not impossible.

For one, they’re obviously looking to win now, while Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels are near their peaks. With Ibanez and Francisco dragging the team down in left field, they sought to fill a huge hole, and certainly got an upgrade for the next 2 1/2 seasons. Pence should be a poor man’s version of what Jayson Werth was in Philadelphia.

And to get him, they gave up players from positions of strength. Nobody’s quite sure whether Singleton could handle the outfield long-term, Ryan Howard’s at first for six years, and prospects Matt Rizzotti and Cody Overbeck could take over for Howard if he went down. And the Phillies are extremely rich in pitching prospects, between Julio Rodriguez, Trevor May, Brody Colvin, Tyler Cloyd, Austin Hyatt, Jesse Biddle, Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, and others. With Halladay and Lee signed long-term anyway, it’s probable that Philadelphia can fill their other pitching slots solidly out of that pool, Cosart or no Cosart. And obviously neither Zeid nor the PTNBL (said to be a non-acclaimed prospect) should hold this deal up.

Since Singleton and Cosart took statistical slides this year, the Phillies also sold high. Nobody’s really worried about either player’s performance yet, so Philadephia pulled the trigger before anybody broached the idea of either player having a disconnect between stats and tools. And it is too early to question that, but the Phillies obviously know their prospects better than anybody, so perhaps they had inside knowledge that made them slightly pessimistc. I asked a similar question about Zack Wheeler‘s high walk rate with the Carlos Beltran trade–nobody’s worried yet, but if it keeps up, at some point the prospect’s value drops.

All that said, there’s still no way around the fact that the Phillies traded two excellent prospects for a merely above-average player. While one can tease out their reasons for doing so, I find it difficult to believe that they couldn’t have gotten a more cost-effective trade. While Philadelphia doesn’t come out as bad as I’d expect them to on paper, the Astros definitely got the better side of this trade, since it dovetails perfectly with their organizational objectives.

Tags: Houston Astros Hunter Pence Jarred Cosart Jonathan Singleton Josh Zeid Philadelphia Phillies

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