Trading Pence would be right move for Astros
All-Star outfielder would bring bounty for team that needs to rebuild
The Houston Astros enter the week 33 games under .500 and 19 1/2 games back of the National League Central lead. This qualifies, as one scout put it, as "very, very not good."But in "very, very not goodness" lies opportunity. And in a year in which an overwhelming number of teams still, at this late juncture, have no idea whether they're legitimate contenders, the opportunity exists for an obvious seller such as the Astros to take advantage of what looks to be a seller's market. General manager Ed Wade has already made it clear that's just what he intends to do. Sounding very much like our forefathers touting the American dream, he has called the Astros "a land of opportunity" for clubs looking for talent to aid their playoff push. "At the very least," Wade said, "we'll be good listeners and see where it all leads." It's hard to know exactly what direction the Astros are headed in, given their pending ownership transition. A group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane has signed a sales-purchase agreement to buy the club from Drayton McLane, and it is awaiting MLB approval, which should come within the next month. Wade, then, is in the difficult position of trying to make the right decisions for the Astros' future without knowing his own future with the club.
This much, however, seems certain: It's time for the Astros, who are in line to finish under .500 for the fourth time in five years, to blow it up in order to build it up. Because the old model isn't working and hasn't worked for some time.Unfortunately for Wade and Co., you can't repair the franchise by moving the likes of Brett Myers (who will make $12 million next season) or Carlos Lee (who will make $18.5 million and has a no-trade clause, anyway), though the Astros are certainly expected to try. Myers and Lee have provided too little value on the field this season and are cashing too-big paychecks off it to reap any prospects of the blue-chip variety.
It's also questionable how much the Astros could get for left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who is having a solid season, given that he's due to make $10.5 million next year and $13.5 million in 2013. If the Astros explore trades for Rodriguez, they might have to absorb a decent percentage of his salary in order to improve the return. But the one guy whose present value is at its peak and the one guy who could, therefore, get the Astros' rebuilding off to an efficient start is the one guy who represented the club at last week's All-Star Game. The face of the franchise and the heart of the lineup: Hunter Pence. Pence is 28 and is having by far his best season in the big leagues. His batting average (.321) and on-base percentage (.363) are both career highs, and his slugging percentage (.489) is his best since his rookie year in 2007. And he's put up these numbers with virtually no lineup protection. To trade Pence now would be to punt not only on this lost season but likely on the next one, too. But that doesn't mean it's the wrong move. Look at the Astros' roster, as the scout did, and ask yourself how far this team is away from contention. J.A. Happ, Clint Barmes, Jason Michaels, Jeff Keppinger, Carlos Corporan and Humberto Quintero aren't part of the future solution any more than Bill Hall was. Look at the Triple-A Oklahoma City roster, and ask yourself the question again. The RedHawks and the Astros share the common bond of last place. The highest levels of the Houston farm system are basically barren after a series of unproductive Drafts. The organization's top prospect yet to reach the big leagues is Delino DeShields Jr. He's 18. Jordan Lyles has the poise and ability to become an Opening Day fixture, and Bud Norris and Mark Melancon join him as young, cheap pitchers with upside to build around. The man of many trades, first baseman Brett Wallace, is only 24 and an intriguing talent. But beyond them, nobody on this club should be deemed untouchable in trade talks, including Pence and speedy center fielder Michael Bourn, who can be a free agent after 2012 and is represented by Scott Boras. Pence might be viewed as the club's cornerstone, but the question must be asked: Cornerstone of what? It's going to be a couple years before the Astros can be taken seriously as contenders, and only then if they make the right moves now. The right move now is to explore offers for Pence, because he's going to be both costly and on the wrong side of 30 by the time the Astros are ready to contend again. Furthermore, he could be an attractive piece in this seller's market, which is loaded with clubs (the Phillies spring to mind) looking for offensive assistance, particularly in the outfield. The right-handed power Pence provides is at such a premium that the offers might be overwhelming enough to get a deal done. If not, well, so be it.
But the Astros need to remember that Pence, who is making a tolerable $6.9 million, is due two more rounds of arbitration before he becomes eligible for free agency after 2013. His cost is about to skyrocket at a time when this team ought to be going young and cheap."It's up to us," Wade said, "to do what's in the best interest of the franchise, and sometimes that's having a longer view of things." A rebuild is the best decision, and sometimes that means parting with your best player.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.