How Hunter Pence Fits in Pittsburgh

There’s an adage regarding the trade deadline I heard recently, but can’t remember the source. The idea, essentially, is that if you require additional players in order to contend, you shouldn’t play the role of buyer. The trade deadline is a time for contenders to shore up their rosters for the final third of the season, not for pretenders to sell the farm for a prayer. This year the Pirates might have reason to eschew that logic. They’re playing better than their talent indicates — about seven wins better, according to Baseball Prospectus’s third-order wins — and could come crashing down at any time. But they’re currently just a half game back of first, and without a standout team in the NL Central they could stay in the race with the right upgrades. A rental, however, might not be the way to go.

On Friday David covered ways the Pirates could improve their offense. They have three main areas of concern, but it would appear easiest to fill their first base or outfield vacancy. David mentioned rentals such as Carlos Pena and Josh Willingham, both of whom would certainly improve the Pirates’ offense. But both become free agents after the season. For a team fortifying its roster for the stretch run, a prospects-for-rentals deal might make sense. The Pirates aren’t fortifying, though. They’re covering up major weaknesses, and even then they might regress from contention. If they’re going to upgrade, they should look to the long term.

This morning Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Rob Biertempfel brought us an interesting tidbit. Apparently the Pirates have scouted Astros RF Hunter Pence “with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline in mind.” While the Astros are firmly in the sellers column, it’s unknown whether they’re interested at all in dealing Pence, who is by degrees the team’s best hitter. He is certainly their best trade chip, so the Pirates’ interest is not surprising. It’s even less surprising, because he’s one of the few avilable players who would stay with the team after this season. But does he fit with the Pirates?

One important factor when discussing any Astros player is the hitter-friendliness of Minute Maid Park. If you look at the park factors at StatCorner, you’ll see lots of figures over 100, especially for right-handed batters. Pence currently has a .354 career wOBA, but that splits into .368 at home and .340 on the road. He also hits for more power at home, a .203 ISO vs. .178 on the road, and his BABIP is considerably higher, .344 at home and .313 on the road. This season is his best since his breakout rookie season, and he’s taking advantage of Minute Maid to the tune of a .397 wOBA. PNC Park, on the other hand, is death to righty power. It has a home run factor of just 73 for righties, which is lower than Safeco Field and Oakland Coliseum. That might make a trade harder to justify.

Pence’s contract situation creates further problems in potential trade talks. He was a Super Two in 2010 and earned $3.5 million in his first arbitration hearing. That nearly doubled to $6.9 million in 2011, and he still has two more years of arbitration before hitting free agency. He could get quite expensive in those two years, which would make him less of a bargain at a time when teams, in theory, should be getting a player for below his market rate. If we combine those arbitration raises with presumably depressed numbers at PNC Park, it could lead to the Pirates overpaying. Add in the bounty in prospects the Astros would require, and the Pirates probably shouldn’t be too motivated to swing a deal.

While Pence specifically might not fit in Pittsburgh, the general idea is right. The Pirates might be in the thick of the race right now, but it’s a long 11 weeks between now and season’s end. They’re surely playing over their heads, rendering a prospects-for-rentals deal unpalatable. If they do want to swing a deal to help improve the team, it should be with an eye on the longer term. That might mean nothing gets done, but it also means they keep their farm in tact for future Pirates teams. The impulse might be to buy now and hope their luck continues, but the prudent move in the long-term is to seek help that will be with the team beyond 2011.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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Good analysis of Pence. I think the general feeling in Pittsburgh is that the team should use the payroll flexibility that they have to acquire rentals like Carlos Peña, Aramis Ramirez, or Carlos Beltran; guys that would require fewer prospects if the Pirates can take on a lot of the salary.