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July 29, 2011

Transaction Analysis

A Pocketful of Pence UPDATED

by Kevin Goldstein and R.J. Anderson

IN THIS ISSUE

National League

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Acquired 1B-L Jonathan Singleton, RHP Jarred Cosart, RHP Josh Zeid, and a player to be named later from the Phillies for OF-R Hunter Pence and cash. [7/28]
Purchased the contract OF-R J.D. Martinez from Double-A Corpus Christi. [7/29]

The Hunter Pence story was a fun one to follow this week. He was available, then he wasn't, and there were even some industry rumors that Houston general manager Ed Wade was just dangling him out there with no intention of trading him just to prove to new management that he was doing something. In the end, that wasn't the case; not only did the Astros trade Pence, they did so for a high-ceiling package that could make Wade look like a genius in three years, or continue to ruin his reputation. It's a known quantity for four prospects, two of whom could help shape the future of the franchise, or get stuck in the minors and never perform as well as their tools say they should.

Singleton is a classic bat-only player, but it could be one hell of a bat. He's a 220-pound chiseled slugger with massive raw power, but much of his reputation is based around an explosive first few weeks at Low-A Lakewood last year, when he put up a .411/.500/.714 line in his first month before sliding to finish at .290/.393/.479. Scouts had some concerns about Singleton as pitchers and teams made adjustments to him, and he failed to respond as expected. He's a pure pull hitter who will likely see infield shifts in the big leagues, and he can get power-happy; after striking out once in every 5.1 at-bats last year, that number has moved up to a more disturbingly high once per 3.8 ABs while Singleton’s struggles against southpaws continue. With all of that swing-and-miss have come just nine home runs in 316 at-bats, but Clearwater is a horrible place to hit, and while Singleton’s current environment might leave him underrated, one is forced to wonder if an end-of-the-year run at the pinball machine that is the Astros' High-A team at Lancaster will suddenly leave him overrated. His approach is big league-worthy at just 19, and combined with the power alone Singleton immediately becomes the best offensive prospect in a weak Astros system. However, at some point we have to start talking production and stop talking about potential, leaving 2012 (assumed to be in Double-A) a pivotal year for Singleton maintaining his status as an elite-level hitter.

In many ways, Cosart is the pitching version of Singleton. If you watched the Futures Game earlier this month, you saw that Cosart had the second-best stuff in a prospect-laden game after Tampa Bay's Matt More, yet, like Singleton, the numbers rarely match the scouting reports. As far the latter, Cosart is one of the highest-ceiling pitching prospects in the game. He throws a 93-97 mph fastball, has a devastating curveball, and a changeup that flashes plus, yet the results are rarely there. Pitching in the same low-offense environment that Singleton has been forced to hit in, Cosart has a 3.92 ERA with just 79 strikeouts in 108 innings. Those are unimpressive numbers for a pitcher with a nearly ideal frame and the best stuff in the league. He's not only failed to dominate, but he's rarely even that good, delivering quality outings in just nine of 20 appearances. With 43 walks in 108 innings, Cosart’s control is the main culprit, but with three average- to well-above offerings, he should be missing bats left and right, regardless of an inability to throw strikes. The Astros are going to challenge him with an assignment to Double-A Corpus Christi, but he has equal possibilities of turning into an ace as he does a shutdown closer, or simply never living up to expectations.

The initial details of the deal had two players to be named later going from Philadelphia to Houston, but one has already been revealed—righty Josh Zeid, who will join Cosart in the Texas League after putting up a 5.65 ERA at Reading. Those numbers are highly misleading, as Zeid was moved to the bullpen in June and has dominated, striking out 24 over 16 innings while allowing just 10 hits and a pair of walks. In shorter stints, he's consistently working into the mid-90s with a solid slider for a breaking ball. Zeid has gone from a struggling starter to a player that looks to have a very real future in the seventh or possibly even eighth inning as a big-league reliever.

The fourth player has not been announced, but he is not expected to be a major prospect.

As for the Astros, the trade creates an opportunity for one of their top offensive prospects, outfielder J.D. Martinez, who has been called up to replace Pence. The biggest surprise in the system since he was drafted in the 20th round out of a D-II school two years ago, all Martinez has done is hit. His career minor-league line is .326/.380/.540, yet scouts constantly question his lack of tools. When he earned Sally League MVP honors last year, everyone said Martinez was too old for the level; when he slugged just .407 in 50 Texas League games following a promotion, people thought that proved the regression. Now at .340/.416/.549, more and more scouts are in the position to just shrug their shoulders and admit that despite being a bit slow, not throwing especially well, and having a swing that is anything but out of a textbook, Martinez can just hit. Despite the numbers, the lack of star-level tools is an important note, and he profiles more as a second-division starter, or the kind of guy who plays the position until Houston can find something better.  —Kevin Goldstein

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Acquired OF-R Hunter Pence and cash from the Astros for 1B-L Jonathan Singleton, RHP Jarred Cosart, RHP Josh Zeid, and a player to be named later. [7/29]

Give props to Ruben Amaro Jr. for once again coming through at the deadline. In 2009 he grabbed Cliff Lee, last season he massaged Roy Oswalt from the Astros, and here he takes another key piece of Houston’s roster in Pence. Every fan base wants their general manager to go out and make something happen, and Amaro has done just that at each deadline thus far without fail. Still, not everything is roses with this trade, as the Phillies gave up some quality talent, and it does not improve them as much as you would think.

Let’s start from the top: Pence is a good player who can help just about any team win ballgames. At 28, he still has some prime seasons left, and he will not qualify for free agency until after next season. On a qualitative basis, Pence is something of a consistency fiend’s favorite, hitting 25 home runs in each of the past three seasons and finishing with the same batting average in 2009 and 2010 (.282). Those are somewhat trivial accomplishments, though, as Pence’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage were considerably lower in 2010 than 2009, but people value the concept of a player who has an entrenched batting average and home run total.

Pence still looks good by more advanced metrics, however, as he has been worth 12 Wins Above Replacement Player since the 2008 season started. Compare that to other right-handed outfielders on the market like B.J. Upton (10.3), Carlos Quentin (9.7), Josh Willingham (9.4), Ryan Ludwick (9.2), and Michael Bourn (8.6), and you can argue that the Phillies got the best of the bunch. At some point or another, having so many good players on a single roster leads to a diminishing effect on returns. The Phillies aren’t at the point where they have All-Star caliber players sitting on the bench, but adding another win or two just doesn’t make much of a difference in the regular season given what they had in place. 

Entering Saturday, our Playoff Odds Report gave the Phillies a 99.1 percent chance of making the postseason. It isn’t definitive, but it’s close, and that’s part of the reason why this trade isn’t about the regular seaso; it’s about the postseason. Over those five-to-seven game series’, the best team doesn’t always win, but adding another good player to an already great team provides another layer of protection against what the Phillies experienced last postseason when they desperately needed another right-handed bat. With Pence around for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he could effectively solve the dilemma for three postseason trips.  

Perhaps the biggest problem with acquiring Pence is that the Phillies chose to jettison Domonic Brown in the aftermath. Brown is a better player than Raul Ibanez right now, but let’s face it, the regular season is merely a formality for the Phillies. What matters is the postseason and stacking the deck in their favor. That means Brown needs to be on the postseason roster, even if it’s just to platoon with Ben Francisco. Otherwise, why orchestrate the big trades and signings only to ignore the easiest in-house solution?  In the interim, the Phillies can soak up the benefits of freezing Brown’s service time clock.

Acquiring Pence makes sense for the Phillies as he makes them a better team and takes another target off the Braves radar, but they were already bound for the playoffs regardless. It’s all about winning another World Series or two, and Pence can help them achieve that. So can Domonic Brown; you just hope they give him a shot. —R.J. Anderson

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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