For the third time in his three years on the job, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has made a big splash before the trade deadline. Friday night Amaro followed his acquisitions of Cliff Lee in 2009 and Roy Oswalt in 2010 by trading the Phillies' top two minor league prospects, right-hander Jarred Cosart and first baseman/left fielder Jonathan Singleton, Double-A righty Josh Zeid, and a player to be named later to the Astros for All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence.
In Cosart and Singleton, Amaro gave up a lot for Pence, as both have the potential to be stars in their own right, but in Pence he got more than just a quick-fix rental for the stretch run and the playoffs. He added a talented young player to the core of his team.
Pence is 28 and won't reach free agency until after the 2013 season. He won't be cheap -- he's making $6.9 million this year in his first arbitration year and will be arbitration-eligible again this offseason coming off what has thus far been his best major league season -- but he will remain the Phillies' asset for a minimum of two years beyond this one. Pence thus joins Chase Utley (signed through 2013), Roy Halladay (signed through '13 with an option for 2014), Lee (signed through '14, option for '15), Ryan Howard (signed through '16, option for '17), and, the Phillies hope, Domonic Brown (under team control through at least 2016) as a core member of the Phillies team that is seeking to win its third pennant in four years this season and seemed like an excellent bet to make its fourth straight National League Championship Series even before the addition of Pence.
Pence does a lot of things well, which typically results in a player being underrated, but on an abysmal Astros team that traded away Oswalt and Lance Berkman last year and has the worst record in baseball as of this writing, he stood out like a superstar, which he's not. Pence hits for power, but has never hit more than 25 home runs or slugged above .472 in a season, and he isn't on pace to surpass either mark this year. He has also played every home game in his career as a right-handed hitter in a ballpark that has had a 114 park factor (100 being average) for right-handed home runs over the past three seasons according to the 2011
So why did I say above that he's having his best season? In part because of the depressed run-scoring environment this year, those totals mean more now than they did in his rookie season of 2007, when he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki. Also because Pence is hitting nearly 20 points above his career batting average, which has, in turn, lifted his on-base percentage close to his previous high. However, that batting average boost isn't likely to last, as it is built on a .370 batting average on balls in play, compared to the roughly league average .304 BABIP Pence has posted over his last three seasons. Pence hit .377 on balls in play as a rookie, which propped up a .322 average, but he hit just .278 over the last three years when his luck evened out.
Looking at those middle three seasons, Pence isn't that much more than a league-average corner outfielder. He hit .278/.330/.466 (.260 GPA) in those three seasons. That works out to a .260
Still, as an in-season upgrade, Pence is a fantastic edition for the Phillies. Though there is sure to be debate about whether he should replace 39-year-old left fielder Raul Ibañez (.245/.287/.418 on the season and brutal in the field, as always, such that he's barely over replacement level according to Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player) or 23-year-old right fielder Brown (.247/.338/.399 on the season and also brutal in the field, such that he's not been that far above replacement himself), in either case, the Phillies would be taking a big step forward both at the plate and in the field. The former is surprisingly important, as the typically powerful Phillies haven't been that far above league average in scoring this season (4.27 runs per game, sixth best in the NL against a league average of 4.10). The latter, meanwhile, will make it that much harder to score against the Phillies dominant rotation with Pence and Shane Victorino casting so wide a net over two thirds of the outfield. Going forward, Pence solves the problem of replacing the free-agent Ibañez this offseason and solidifies the pasture opposite Brown for the next two years.
Even if Pence is merely average for his position, the difference between replacement level and league average can have a major impact on a team's fortunes, and as a team-controlled player, Pence shouldn't break the bank for what he delivers, particularly not for a Phillies team that has proven its willingness to spend both dollars and prospects in order to maintain its current place among the best teams in baseball.
As for the players going to the Astros, they are exactly the sort of high-ceiling prospects that a largely barren organization needs, and are on a more appropriate development pace to participate in the next winning Astros team than Pence, who has just two team controlled seasons left and is already making millions. Cosart, a 21-year-old righty starter from the Houston suburb of League City, has a strong repertoire of a mid-90s fastball, wicked curve, and good change-up, and a long, lanky frame. He's far from a finished product, and has been erratic thus far a High-A, but he's also in just his second full professional season, and he jumped up to No. 29 on Kevin Goldstein's mid-season update of his top 50 prospects list over at Baseball Prospectus based more on his potential than his performance.
Singleton, who was rated the 39th best prospect in the game by Baseball America coming into this season, before many of those top names graduated to the majors, is hitting .282/.386/.411 as a 19-year-old in High-A and could well be a massive run producer in the middle of the Houston order as soon as 2014 (which doesn't sound soon, but it's just three years away). Singleton doesn't do anything other than hit, he's slow and has no defensive value, but he should be able to out-hit his fielding by a mile at first base or in left field. As a left-handed Phillies prospect, the obvious comparison point was Howard, and that comparison has not been discouraged by scouts. Singleton is also way ahead of Howard's pace in terms of playing age. Howard, who was drafted out of college, didn't reach High-A until he was 23. By then, Singleton should be playing his home games in Houston.
Astros GM Ed Wade, who held that position for the Phillies from 1998 to 2005, has made a habit out of making swaps with his old club, previously acquiring Michael Bourne and others for Brad Lidge after the 2007 season and J.A. Happ and others for Oswalt at last year's deadline, but he was out of the Phillies organization before either Cosart or Singleton was drafted, so he's not chasing pets, he's getting the best of the Phillies' farm system. The same is true in the case of 24-year-old Double-A righty Zeid, who struggled as a starter earlier in the year, but has thrived since moving to the bullpen at the end of June. Still, he's a middle-relief piece at best, and not a prospect.
At the moment, this looks like a good deal for both sides. The Phillies might have overpaid for Pence, but their potential reward (one if not multiple world championships) is worth the risk, and thus far the Phillies have yet to regret losing any of the prospects sent away in the Lee or Halladay deals, though it's still early in both cases. As for the Astros, they need not apologize to their fans for trading away a player who had come to be the team's signature player after the departure of franchise greats Berkaman and Oswalt given the solid return they received. Cosart and Singleton are both a long way from the majors in terms of development, and a lot could go wrong with either one, but getting two top prospects, a potential front-of-the-rotation starter and potential middle-of-the-order bat, for essentially a league-average outfielder is a trade any rebuilding organization needs to make.