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The Astros Have A Hunter Pence Problem

Pence is getting older and more expensive, but he's becoming the quintessential Astro. How much of a problem will that be for new owner Jim Crane?

HOUSTON - MAY 24:  Hunter Pence #9 of the Houston Astros doubles to right field in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers  at Minute Maid Park on May 24, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - MAY 24: Hunter Pence #9 of the Houston Astros doubles to right field in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Maid Park on May 24, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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Why on earth did a story about the Philadelphia Phillies trading for Hunter Pence get legs? The Phillies have outfielders aplenty, so why would they need a guy like Pence? 

It's part of a bigger problem with the Astros popular right fielder, who plays the game the right way even if he looks all sorts of funky while he does it. Pence is the best player on one of the worst teams in the league, so naturally teams will come calling on him.

But, you say, Pence is young. He should be a cornerstone piece that the Astros build around for the future. Except, Pence isn't very young. He turned 28 on April 13 and is heading another expensive year of arbitration. The Astros control his future for two more seasons, but since he's earning 6.9 million this season, Pence is probably heading for an eight figure salary in 2012. 

That's a problem on multiple levels. Talk is that the Phillies wouldn't have been able to take on Pence's entire salary, even if they were thinking of trading for him. If the Astros wait to trade Pence until next summer? That salary will be more and more of an impediment to any deal. As the Astros saw with the Roy Oswalt sweepstakes, limiting the market for a player because of salary will hurt the package a team could get back for him.

But, the Astros don't have to trade Pence. He's still a valuable player and is the best overall player on the Astros roster. He hits, he fields well and he runs the bases reasonably quickly. He's got some pop but not a lot, and that's ultimately what will depress his value to other teams.

Right now, Pence is a 3-4 fWAR player. That means he's worth about three to four wins above a replacement level player (like Brian Bogusevic or J.B. Shuck). That's just under the level of a typical "All-Star" player and significantly lower than an MVP candidate. So, even now in the peak of Pence's career, he's not quite an elite player. 

Of course, Pence still has two or three years of playing at a very high level. He could churn out a career year soon, hitting over 30 home runs and hitting over .300 for the season. What will that do to his value? It may increase the package the Astros will get from him, but it'll also increase his price tag, which will then lower his value back down some. Plus, that career year won't be the norm with Pence. In this post-steroids world, we can't expect a player in his 30's to hold onto that same level of success. 

Which means the Astros have a problem.

Their most popular player isn't a guy they can build the franchise around. For all his intangibles, he's simply not a good enough player to anchor the lineup for the next few years. That means they can't really sign him to a long-term deal unless they want to tie up too much money in a player that's probably not going to be worth big money for more than three years.

But, Pence is clearly the marquee guy for this team. If he makes the All-Star team this season, he'll be just the 24th player in team history to do so. He'll join guys like Nolan Ryan, Glenn Davis, Jose Cruz, Moises Alou, Joaquin Andujar, Roger Clemens, Larry Dierker, Darryl Kile, Bob Knepper, Denis Menke, Joe Morgan, Dave Smith, Rusty Staub, Miguel Tejada and Bob Watson as two-time All-Stars in franchise history. There are some really big names on that list and some guys who had just brief tenures with the Astros. There are good players and great players, which shows that going by All-Star selections is a bad way to judge how integral a player should be. 

Still, it puts Pence in some elite company and makes him the face of the team even more. The bigger issue for potential new owner Jim Crane is how do you trade a player that might simply need trading? If the first thing you do as an owner is sign off on trading away the franchise player, even if he's not really a franchise guy in the traditional sense?

That's the question Crane will have to face. Choose to wait and trade Pence after the season, you might not get much and have to pay him $10 million. Trade him too soon, and he could put up a Lance Berkman season for someone else.

But, it's telling that the Phillies came calling for him before deciding to sign Scott Podsednik. Pence is good, but he's not being viewed as a huge addition. He'd be a complimentary piece on that team and the Astros should not lose sight of that fact.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.