The Astros and Hunter Pence's agents exchanged arbitration figures last week, but the two sides couldn't find a middle ground by Ed Wade's (forgive me) arbitrary deadline of Tuesday. So, the two sides will now go to arbitration next month to settle Pence's salary for 2010. It will be the second straight year the Astros have gone to an arbitration hearing. What does this mean for Pence and/or the Astros? I'm glad you asked...
1) This does not mark Hunter's place with the organization
Pence seems to be moving into the direction of the team leader. When Ed Wade invited some minor league prospects to big league camp, Pence asked him for their phone numbers so he could call them and talk to them about what to expect. By all accounts, Pence is one of the most driven players on the team and could be a leader for years. However, he's heading into his Age 28 season and will have two more arbitration years left. The Astros have not shown a willingness to buy out many arbitration years in the past, so the fact that they've decided to take Pence to arbitration isn't huge. As we saw with Wandy Rodriguez, it can still mean he signs an extension next winter.
2) The Astros value pitching
You have to sift through some chaff to get here, but all the moaning about how much Ed Wade loves relievers misses the point. Wade is building this team around pitching. Whether it's in prospects like Jordan Lyles, Mike Foltynewicz or even Ross Seaton or the more veteran guys he brings in, Wade cleary values pitching above raw offensive numbers. That goes triply to how he's dealt with long-term contracts. Wade may have traded for guys like Miguel Tejada and Michael Bourn, but he's only given long-term contracts to pitchers. Guys like Brandon Lyon, Wandy and Brett Myers all have some security while guys like Bourn and Pence are left with one-year deals. That's probably more a product of the age of their position players, but it's still telling.
3) Could Hunter slump in April and May?
Wandy Rodriguez went into the 2010 season coming off an arbitration hearing that saw the Astros win their case against him. He also put up two of his worst months in years during May and June of last year. Arbitration cases are pretty brutal. Teams are arguing against their players, saying why they shouldn't be paid more money. If the team wins, couldn't that get into a player's head? That's one of the popular theories on why Wandy struggled so much early in the season. I subscribe to the theory that he didn't mesh with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg until halfway through the season, but that's not the point here. If Pence loses his arbitration case...heck, even if he hears the Astros argue against his value, could that affect his play early in the season? I don't totally buy that, since Pence is a driven guy who doesn't seem like the type to dwell on this. But, it's worth keeping in mind as we watch him begin 2011.
4) Yes, the Astros have a budget. No, it didn't affect this
I'll talk about this more in another post, but it's getting pretty obvious that the Astros have a budget number they are trying to stick to. All of Ed Wade's comments this winter have said as much, without ever sticking to an exact figure. Looking at that, it seems fair to assume Pence's situation was driven by the money. Yet, there is no real sign the Astros are cutting costs dramatically. They were frugal on the free agent market, but did spend big for guys like Clint Barmes and Bill Hall (I know Barmes was a trade, but they still had to pay him in arbitration). All indications have been that the Astros had a reduced salary number and have for the past two years, but that it's not inflexible. If the Astros could have made a long-term deal with Pence that made sense financially and from a baseball perspective, they'd have done it. The looming sale of the club had nothing to do with Pence heading to arbitration.
5) Houston is really, really confident in Tal Smith
I tried to find the exact number, but I believe Maury Brown of the Biz of Baseball said that only 11 cases have gone to arbitration in the past few years. The Astros will now have two hearings in the past two years. Team president Tal Smith has made a career on arbitration cases. He's so successful that his company consults with other clubs, even though he works for the Astros. So, Houston management must feel pretty confident in his ability to fairly get through these hearings, without making the player angry. What will be interesting is if the new ownership group keeps Smith on in his role for just this purpose. Has he made a big enough impression on Ed Wade and Co. for them to lobby for him?