No one knows if Astros' right fielder Hunter Pence is untouchable or not. We don't know what Ed Wade and Jim Crane are thinking, and we don't know if they are willing to part ways with Pence, the face of the franchise. With that being said, it's skeptical to assume that any trade with Pence is plausible, but we do know that playoff contenders want him.
Sources: HOU shows willingness to trade Pence; rival executives expect he will move. Braves have prospects to make deal happen; we'll see.
Pence's name has come up in trade rumors with the Red Sox, Phillies, Braves, Giants, and even the resurgent Pirates. The Boston Globe recognizes that it would take a lot to pry away Pence, but they can think it can be done. I mean, what kind of contending team wouldn't want Pence's services in right field?
He's currently batting .321 with 11 homers and 61 RBIs, and he made a great impression in last week's All-Star Game with a pinch-hit single and an outfield assist. Pence is the type of player that some teams, like the Astros, want to build their team around. However, it's pretty clear that Houston probably values Pence more than any other team in the league. On the other hand, various general managers view Pence as an asset, a nice bat that would help the middle of the order. There are teams that don't envision Pence as a perennial All-Star; rather they see him as the third or fourth best hitter on a playoff team.
Regardless of who's calling Ed Wade and inquiring about Pence, the fact still remains that he is coveted around the league. His perceived value is also affected by the other outfielders in this year's market. Some of those names include Carlos Beltran, Josh Willingham, and Ryan Ludwick. Each of these hitters could be a nice addition for any team looking for a solid outfield bat, and it's been reported that Beltran is probably Pence's biggest competition, in terms of offensive production.
Beltran is having quite the year for the New York Mets, hitting .287 with 14 home runs and 59 RBIs. He also leads the National League in doubles, and he's even drawing walks at an impressive rate. Beltran has been a major injury concern throughout the later stages of his career, but he's actually holding up nicely this season. He has $8.1 million left on his one-year deal, and he would reportedly waive his no-trade clause to a winning team. However, the Mets are asking for top prospects in return for Beltran, and it sounds like they are being difficult in current trade negotiations.
I think Beltran would be a fantastic short-term addition for any contending ballclub, but he does have a potential snag in his contract. There is a clause stating that Beltran can't be offered arbitration, meaning that the Mets will not get any compensation picks in return. It sounds like the Mets want to hold onto shortstop Jose Reyes for the future, and they might need to unload Beltran in order to pay Reyes.
Oakland left fielder Josh Willingham is another outfielder that could be on the move in the next couple of weeks, and I think he's the type of guy that could really bolster another team's offense. Willingham has been injured for parts of this season, but he has still accounted for 14 home runs and 46 RBIs. For much of his career, Willingham has been able to get on base and draw walks at a nice rate, evidenced by his .362 career OBP. He got off to a relatively slow start earlier this year but has rebounded nicely with a .345 average in the month of July.
While Oakland has always been keen of shedding payroll at the deadline, Willingham is probably their most coveted player this year. Although the Athletics have some quality bullpen arms, Willingham would certainly bring a better haul than say, Brian Fuentes or Grant Balfour. Coco Crisp is another outfielder that could be available, but Willingham is nearing the end of his 1 year/$6 million deal and wouldn't require any future commitment for any team that trades for him. It's obvious that a younger Hunter Pence would be much more attractive to a contender, but Willingham could be a relatively cheap two-month rental that still produces at a decent offensive clip.
Ryan Ludwick, the Padres' starting right fielder, is a power-hitting outfielder that could also be on the market. Ludwick is not hitting for a good average right now (.241), but he has driven in 57 runs. He's the type of player that could really thrive in a hitter-friendly ballpark. San Diego also offers no real protection in their lineup for Ludwick, and he could put up solid numbers for a better offensive club. Ludwick is only signed to a one-year contract ($6.75 million), and he would probably garner a similar haul to Willingham.
In conclusion, I think Pence is the best outfield option for a playoff team because of his young age, high potential, and strong defensive skills. However, a contending ballclub would have to surrender the most to acquire Pence because the Astros value him so highly. Conversely, If Jim Crane really does want to lower the team payroll to $60 million, then getting Pence off the books would save a lot of money in the future. There's a very high chance that Willingham and Beltran are dealt this summer, but I guess we won't know about Pence until that time comes...