Is Hunter Pence really the most important trade chip on the Astros?
While baseball writers continue to debate about the chance of a Hunter Pence trade, contending teams must shift their focus to other important trade chips on the Astros' roster, most notably Michael Bourn and Wandy Rodriguez. Although Pence was understood to be the most coveted Astro this summer, is it possible that both Bourn and Rodriguez are arguably more valuable than Pence? We all know that Pence is having another solid season in right field (.308, 11 homers, 68 RBIs), but let's not forget about how vital Bourn and Rodriguez could be on a playoff-bound club.
Michael Bourn is currently in his fourth year as starting center fielder for the Astros, and he has shown glimpses of stardom since 2008. Bourn plays absolutely phenomenal defense, and his quickness allows him to cover the spacious territory in center. He makes tough plays in the field look routine, and his back-to-back NL Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2010 attribute to that.
When looking at advanced metrics and increased statistical analysis, Bourn's production has been off the charts. His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is a robust 28 over the last two seasons combined, good for second amongst all major leaguer center fielders. He has also accrued 16.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) since 2009, ranking sixth for all outfielders in that time span. Even if you don't put much stock in these advanced statistics, I think it's safe to say that simply watching Bourn play center field is a joy to watch. He takes precise routes when tracking down a fly ball, and frankly, you don't see him dive often because he doesn't need to. He gets to the ball at a very quick rate, and his services roaming around Minute Maid Park are greatly appreciated with below-average Carlos Lee in left.
If you think Bourn is a great defensive outfielder, just watch him on the basepaths. He is currently leading the majors with 38 steals, and he also swiped 102 bags in the last two seasons combined. His ability to draw walks coupled with his knack to always take the extra base make Bourn an elite speedster. He has been successful on over 80% of his steal attempts and is truly a valuable asset at the top of the order.
The Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals are a couple of the teams that have inquired about Bourn, and he could prove to be great acquisition for a winning ballclub. Bourn is under contract for another year and a half, but he could test the waters of free agency in 2013 for the first time with his new agent, Scott Boras. With Austin Wates and George Springer potentially able to take over for Bourn in the future, the Astros could be soon faced with some important contract issues. Of course they would be a better overall team with Bourn on the roster, but does that really matter for a team with a 33-70 record and little hope for the immediate future? Would the Astros be better suited to deal Bourn now and acquire some younger talent in hopes of accelerating this rebuilding process? I think the answer is yes, but the Astros apparently are asking for too much in a potential Bourn deal. Does Ed Wade have a case though, maybe Bourn is worth a nice haul?
On the surface, it seems that Bourn might be worth a handful of quality prospects based on his production at the plate, great defense, and elite speed. Heck, some baseball writers believe that Bourn is the most underrated player in baseball.
Conversely, the analysts at Fangraphs feel that putting too much stock in a player's defense could be the wrong way to determine his value. While that might not bode well for Bourn's financial demands down the road, I think he is performing way above market value. He obviously has a much different skill set than Hunter Pence, but I don't think it's out of the question to say that Bourn is more valuable from a market perspective than the Astros' right fielder.
From a pitching standpoint, Wandy Rodriguez is another Astro that's been heavily targeted during these times leading up to the deadline. Wandy is having another solid year (6-7, 3.60 ERA), but his trade value has apparently tanked to near "salary dump status." Much of the speculation about a potential destination for Rodriguez is rooted in his hefty contract for the next three years. The Astros' lefty is owed roughly $38 million if he picks up his player option in 2014, but he could provide stability to a contender's rotation for several years to come.
While various clubs view Wandy as overpaid, you can't argue with his impressive 3.40 ERA since the beginning of 2008. American League teams are reportedly worried about Wandy switching into a more hitter-friendly league, but I think the Astros would be willing to eat some of his contract in order to get a deal done.
In terms of other quality starters on the market this summer, Wandy is one of the best available. The Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez is coveted around the league, but Colorado is asking for "three-sure thing players" in return. Brett Myers could be available as well, but Rodriguez is surely the best left-hander out there right now. He strikes out around eight batters per nine innings pitched and can also work late into the game. Truth is, Wandy's second-half ERA last year (2.11) rivaled some of the best arms in baseball, and he's proven himself with another strong season this year.
Most teams in the market for a pitcher like Wandy (Diamondbacks, Yankees, Reds) are certainly not looking to trade for Pence as well. Their interests at the trading deadline are completely different, but I think Wandy could provide very similar production as Pence from this point forward. You have to realize that a quality left-handed starter is a hot commodity in baseball, and Rodriguez deserves some recognition.
In conclusion, the Astros are loaded with extremely valuable trade chips in Pence, Bourn, and Rodriguez. Pence is a great hitter, but some teams view him as the fourth-best batter on a good team's lineup. Bourn excels at what he does best, and could provide a surplus of Wins Above Replacement at a cheaper price. Wandy could be a mainstay in the Yankees' rotation for the next three years if they take a chance of him, but will they? Will the Astros be generous enough this week to get a deal done, regardless of Wandy's large contract?
When the trade deadline comes this Sunday afternoon, we'll have our answer...