Hunter Pence apparently brought less in return than he cost the Phillies a year ago, but his departure frees up payroll money.
Hunter Pence apparently brought less in return than he cost the Phillies a year ago, but his departure frees up payroll money. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Trading Hunter Pence makes sense

Posted: August 02, 2012

WASHINGTON - As Ruben Amaro Jr. and various members of his front office emerged from a tunnel at Nationals Park early Tuesday evening, you half-expected them to recoil in pain at the sudden burst of sunlight. The group had spent much of the previous 3 days hunkered down at the team hotel, laying the groundwork for one of the more dramatic afternoons in recent club history. By the time the annual non-waiver trade deadline arrived, the Phillies had parted ways with two-thirds of their outfield, exchanging Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino for a well-regarded prospect, a young major league reliever, and a part-time major league outfielder, along with a couple of minor league projects.

The package the Phillies obtained in return for one-and-a-half seasons of Pence might seem underwhelming, particularly when you compare it to the package that they surrendered for what ended up being a year of him. Still, the move made plenty of sense from a philosophical standpoint. With Pence expected to earn between $14 million and $15 million next season, the Phillies faced the very real potential of paying more for him than they would a similarly talented corner outfielder on the free-agent market. Last offseason, for example, Carlos Beltran signed with St. Louis for an average of $13 million over two seasons. Sheer logic suggests that the Phillies were wise to swap Pence for whatever they could get and, if necessary, spend his money on a free-agent replacement.

The execution of the Pence trades, incoming and outgoing, is a separate issue, one that will not be definitively settled until Jonathon Singleton and Jarred Cosart get a chance to live up to their Top 50 ranking by Baseball America, and Tommy Joseph gets a chance to prove the magazine wrong. Joseph, the 21-year-old catcher who served as the centerpiece of Pence's trade to the Giants, is regarded as a high-level prospect by scouts, although he was not included in BA's annual ranking of the Top 100 minor leaguers in the game ( BA had him ranked behind centerfielder Gary Brown on its list of San Francisco's top prospects). The reality is that there is no reliable metric or method for comparing the value of prospects. The only value that matters is the value that an organization's scouting department places on a player, and the accuracy of that value cannot be judged until years down the line.

The one thing that is clear is that trading Pence makes the Phillies a less talented baseball team, at least for the moment. Not only is Joseph 21 years old - he hit .260 with a .313 on-base percentage, .391 slugging percentage and eight home runs in 335 plate appearances at Double A Richmond - he plays a position that will be manned by Carlos Ruiz through at least next season. The perfect trade would have given the Phillies a piece that could help them compete in 2013. Instead, they will have to make do with Nate Schierholtz, a strong-armed, lefthanded pull hitter who put up solid but not spectacular numbers as a part-time corner outfielder for the Giants.

Over the last two seasons, Schierholtz has posted a .271/.326/.429 line with 14 home runs in 558 plate appearances, which is similar to the production the Phillies got from Jimmy Rollins in 2011. Pence, on the other hand, hit .289/.357/.486 with 28 home runs in 676 plate appearances during his year in Philadelphia.

The good news is that the Phillies do not sound as if they traded for Schierholtz with the assumption that he would be their everyday rightfielder in 2013.

"I don't know yet," Amaro said, "because he's never been an everyday player. But he's a pretty good player."

At the worst, the Phillies will wind up with a solid defender and lefthanded bench hitter earning a modest salary (Schierholtz should make around $2.75 million through arbitration next season). In that case, they can always spend part of Pence's money on a player like Nick Swisher, who has similar power numbers with better base-reaching ability and more versatile defense.

Really, the only immediate benefit of the Pence trade is that it sets up the deals that will really matter. Whether that involves the addition of a corner outfielder like Swisher, or a tangle with Scott Boras over centerfielder Michael Bourn, or a trade for a third baseman who can provide some offense (assuming the injury risk presented by top free agent Kevin Youkilis is too great), the Phillies need to upgrade the offense at all three positions. They entered Tuesday averaging 3.8 runs per game since Chase Utley's return, along with a .233 average, .298 on-base percentage and .380 slugging percentage. They had also lost 17 of 26 games. Since Ryan Howard's return, they were averaging 3.7 runs, .223/.289/.365.

They still need to address the bullpen, but the offense remains a pressing concern.

"We still have a very good team out there," Amaro said. "Is it as good as the team that was playing 2 days ago? Maybe not. But we'll find out."

Contact David Murphy at murphyd@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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