Seller’s Remorse: Did Phillies Make Mistake Trading Hunter Pence?


July 17, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Hunter Pence (3) at bat in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Coming out of the 2011 MLB All-Star break, the Philadelphia Phillies were absolutely running away with the NL East division. Sitting at 57-34, the Phillies had transitioned from a team bent on outscoring opponents with the long ball and a stacked lineup to a pitching-paced, efficient winner whose relentless starting staff nearly ensured winning almost every series. With the completion of the ‘Four Aces’ pitching staff rounded out by Roy Oswalt, the Phillies jumped out on a franchise-record pace for wins and securing the best record in the National League seemed like it was a formality. Despite the regular season success, there was a seed of doubt in the back of Phillies fans heads. The previous two seasons, the team had also boasted the title of clear-cut favorite in the National League, and probably all the Majors. Even with such impressive squads, the Phillies were unable to capture a second World Series ring following their 2008 title and patience was wearing. The regular season had become a waiting room to see if the Phillies could escape the previous years demons in the playoffs and return to the promised land. With the 2011 team appearing to be the most successful and positioned to run away with a championship, the front office decided to bring in a piece they figured would make their team that much more unstoppable.

Outfielder Hunter Pence was a lifelong member of the Houston Astros. Despite being a fan favorite who brought contagious energy to the ballpark even when the team went through struggles, Pence’s deal was running out and the right-handed bat was the hottest name on the trade market. With the Phillies fielding an outfield trio that included veterans Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez, they saw Pence as being a potentially dynamic addition to the lineup. The frustrating career path of Domonic Brown was in full swing at the time, and there was no room for the unproven, raw talent in the midst of a pennant race. Pence, who fielded his position relatively well and had significant power from the right side of the plate, appeared to be the perfect luxury for a team that was ready to bring home the World Series.

Sure enough a night before the trade deadline, in the middle of game action, the news trickled through the wires and the Phillies had once again made a swap with the Houston Astros to give them the prize of the trade deadline. Pence received a standing ovation as the news was announced at his final game in Houston, but immediately the news of the night became how the Phillies had further constructed the best team of the decade.

Pence did not come cheap for the Phillies. In exchange, they sent the Astros starting pitcher Jarred Cosart, a developing right-hander who had just made the jump to AAA; first baseman Jonathan Singleton, a big-time power hitting prospect in a similar mold to Ryan Howard; and P Josh Zeid and outfielder Domingo Santaga.

The deal all but cleaned out what was already an arid Phillies farm system. Still, all signs pointed to Pence ensuring the Phillies of a World Series and it would only be a matter of playing out the games. It certainly seemed that way as the Phillies steamrolled their way to the postseason. Pence’s playful, almost childish approach to the game made him an immediate fan-favorite. His trademark phrase of ‘Let’s Go Eat’ became tee-shirt fodder popping up all around the city, and the move seemed like a match made in heaven. When the team clinched their fifth consecutive division title Pence, who had yet to reach the postseason in his career, was the unofficial grand marshal of the champagne-soaked celebration, filling into the tight-knit Phillies locker room perfectly.

Pence had hit .324 over his 54 games with the Phillies, including 11 home runs and 35 RBIs. What was an added bonus was that Pence, coming from the National League Central division, was familiar with the team’s first round opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals. With a 102-60 record in the books, the playoffs seemed like a several-week coronation to the best Phillies team in franchise history.

To stay under the assumption that everyone knows what happened in that NLDS, I’ll opt not to relive the pain. Once again the Phillies, prohibitive favorites at the beginning of the playoffs, were bounced before even reaching the World Series. As far as Pence’s showing, he was similar to the rest of the Phillies lineup. He hit only .211 with 4 RBIs and no extra base hits. The elimination at the hands of the Cardinals was devastating for the organization. With Ryan Howard tearing his achilles tendon making the last out of the decisive game, a massive hole was left in the middle of their aging lineup for the foreseeable future. One could even argue that Howard going down in game five vs. St. Louis was the beginning of the end for Hunter Pence.

The following offseason brought an unfamiliar air of uncertainty to Clearwater for the Phillies. Howard was on the shelf with no return in sight, Chase Utley was hiding a mysterious condition with his legs that turned out to be much more serious than anyone could have imagined, the invincibility was gone from the Phillies and it was the start of a difficult stretch for Pence, and the organization. The team sputtered through Spring Training and, as they started regular season play, it became clear that we were watching a different Phillies team. Their sizzling start to 2011 had been replaced by bumbling, inconsistent baseball that had the team hovering around .500 for the better part of the first two months. Normal stalwarts like Cliff Lee, Halladay, and Shane Victorino were going through significant struggles, and the team was unable to string together wins like they had in the past.

With Howard and Utley on the shelf, a great deal of criticism fell on Pence’s shoulders. While Pence delivered solid numbers in a miserable Phillies lineup, he was not putting together the sort of colossal months that Howard and Utley used to deliver when they could carry the team for a stretch. It was unfair to expect such a performance from Pence, who had never done such, but he was the newest addition and the charismatic face of the team and someone had to be the focus of the anguish. Even with solid numbers, Pence’s impatience at the plate and awkwardness in the field sometimes masked what was, for the most part, a consistent performance. The team was losing in bunches and Pence was starting to look like a luxury the team could not afford. They entered the All-Star break at 37-50 and with very little hope as far as making any sort of run at the playoffs. With an entirely different attitude regarding the team and the trade deadline, Pence’s name came up more and more as a possible piece to be shipped away from the flawed Phillies.

Despite remaining a lovable member in the clubhouse and a fan favorite at the ballpark, the team stumbled out of the All-Star break and the rumors became impossible to ignore. Sure enough, the team walked away from a potential $13 million contract in 2013 and, after shopping Pence throughout the trade period, moved the outfielder to the NL West leading San Francisco Giants. In return, the Phillies received little-used outfielder Nate Schierholtz, minor-league pitcher Seth Rosin, and minor-league catcher Tommy Joseph. With Schierholtz being the only piece of the trade that was MLB-ready, it became clear that the Phillies had given up on the season and were trying to do anything to start to rebuild their barren minor-league crop. They had further depleted the outfield that same trade deadline, when they moved Shane Victorino to the Dodgers.

October 31, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence (8) reacts to the crowd during the World Series victory parade at Market Street. The Giants defeated the Detroit Tigers in a four-game sweep to win the 2012 World Series. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

As far as where each team went after the trade, one could not write up two more different narratives. The Phillies stumbled and bumbled their way to an 81-81 season that felt an awful lot worse considering the years leading up to it. Pence’s new team, the Giants, made one of the more spirited late-to-postseason runs in recent memory. With Pence serving as the emotional leader for San Francisco, the light-hitting Giants stormed their way into the postseason and, through exceptional pitching and clutch hitting, captured their second World Series title in two years.

Pence’s heroics made him an immediate folk legend in the Bay area. On a team that featured very little star power outside of Buster Posey, Pence’s electrifying pregame huddles paired with his inspired play on the field had a contagious effect on the overachieving Giants on their run to a ring.

As far as 2012 is concerned, keeping Pence on the Phillies would not have helped them win a World Series, let alone a spot in the playoffs. The team had too much to overcome on both their own team and the others in the division to secure a spot and Pence probably would have been seen as an unnecessary luxury on a bad team by season’s end. Contrarily, I do think Pence was essential to the Giants winning the World Series. They were a team that could not streak along on talent alone and needed Pence’s limitless energy to keep them inspired through the grind of the playoffs.

As the offseason dragged on, the ramifications of the Pence deal started to come about more and more. The Phillies decided not to bring back a solid, albeit unspectacular Nate Schierholtz beyond his contract expiring at season’s end. Light-hitting Juan Pierre also walked away after his one-year deal and so the 2013 Phillies would officially be using an entirely different outfield than the 2012 Phillies. It was understood that Domonic Brown, for the first time in his career, would be an opening day starter in the outfield. Beyond that, the team had to fill in the remaining spots. They traded away starter Vance Worley and prospect Trevor May for Ben Revere, a speedy outfielder in a similar mold to Juan Pierre. The team still had John Mayberry on the roster, but he had done little to show he could be a long-term option at any of the three positions. Rather than making a major move for Josh Hamilton or any of the other free agent options, the Phillies went with a cheaper option and decided to give Delmon Young an opportunity. Young, who was a former number one overall pick, had spent the last few years of his career as a designated hitter, and had done very little to inspire hope that he was an answer for the Phillies.

On the other hand, with the Phillies escaping the $13 million price tag on Pence, it allowed them flexibility in both the short and long-term. When Pence was acquired, he was one and a half seasons from free agency. However, being in his 20s, all signs pointed to the Phillies pursuing a long-term deal, similar to the 5-yr/$90 million Pence just received from the Giants. Considering his performance and age, a deal like that would be similar to what the Phillies have recently done with Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, only with two more seasons.

To me, what is more frustrating about the Pence deal is not necessarily that the Phillies don’t have Pence, but what has happened with the other pieces of the trade. Nate Schierholtz is, by no stretch of the imagination, a cornerstone outfielder for a championship team. However, the Phillies were foolish to think they were at that level at the start of the 2013 season. What Schierholtz could have provided for the Phillies was everday consistency at an important position. He was competent enough at the plate, sporting a career .270 average before joining the Phillies. He could field his position and he was not going to make the sort of mistakes that hurt a team over the long haul. Whether it was the fact that he had never hit over ten home runs in a year or maybe the Phillies felt they had a real shot at landing one of the prizes of the offseason, they did not even explore the option of Schierholtz.

The other big piece received in the trade that was supposed to, and could still depending on how things turn out, was catcher Tommy Joseph. With Carlos Ruiz getting older, and carrying a 25-game suspension into the 2013 season, a strong spring showing by Joseph could allow him to crack the lineup sooner than expected. Despite doing so in his time with the big team in Clearwater, the Phillies decided to leave Joseph down in the minors for further seasoning. Even so, Joseph was the clear-cut catcher of the future and seemed as if he could be a solid chip from a trade for the future.

Everything was going well for Joseph, until a concussion suffered in May started a chain of events that put the Phillies future at the catcher position in serious question. After making several attempts to ramp back up to everyday playing level, Joseph was eventually shut down for the season with concussion symptoms and many have begun to doubt whether Joseph, even at 100%, is a legitimate option to man the backstop for the future.

In terms of what Hunter Pence, the player, brought to the Phillies, I never thought he would be able to reach the perhaps unreasonable expectations laid out for him by the fans. The reason Pence was able to succeed in San Francisco was that they were the best defensive team in baseball when they won the World Series. The other eight positions in the field were strong enough defensively to make up for the occasional gaffe by Pence in the field. Similarly at the plate, the San Francisco hitters showed a discipline and patience in their at bats that could compensate for Pence’s free-swinging, streaky tendencies. Contrarily, the Charlie Manuel Phillies never showed the type of discipline at the plate that could mask someone with deficiencies like Pence’s. For years, the team had to do what they could to hide some of the struggles of slugger Ryan Howard at the plate. To try to do that for two hitters in the lineup requires a supporting cast that has more patience and selectivity at the plate.

It would have been great, in theory, to have Domonic Brown and Hunter Pence as the corner outfielders bracketing Ben Revere. Pence would have been the only member making a substantial salary and his arm, to go with Brown’s would make up for Revere’s deficiencies in that department. However, if you were to put Brown and Pence side-by-side, one could argue that maybe the Phillies have the better player of the two. Pence finished the year playing all 162 games, batting .283 with 27 home runs, 99 runs batted in, and a .483 slugging. These are very strong numbers that certainly warrant a contract extension in the neighborhood of what Pence got. Were there any doubt as to whether Pence deserved the money from a statistics standpoint, what he brings to the Giants clubhouse and the San Francisco community erases any doubt in that respect. As far as Brown goes, the budding outfielder, still raw in several areas, made a strong impression in his first season as the opening day starter. In 139 games, Brown hit .272, with 27 home runs (equal to Pence in 23 fewer games), 89 runs batted in, and a .494 slugging percentage. So while Pence won the batting average contest, Brown managed to top Pence in both power categories (as far as games played), and when healthy was on a similar pace in the RBI department. Both players are fair defensively. Pence has made his fair share of spectacular plays as far as diving catches go, but Brown probably has the edge in the arm department. Neither player has the sort of natural style when it comes to tracking balls and playing the angles in the field, so both can look out-of-place at times. Still, neither is such a liability in the field that it presents a major issue for the team.

So a year and a half removed from the trade, with both teams coming off miserable 2013 campaigns, one can look at it a number of ways. Had the Phillies kept Pence, they may have finished over .500 in 2012. They would not have made the playoffs because the Braves and Nationals were too good and Pence had not shown the ability to carry the Phillies at any point in his career. It is conceivable that, upon the return of a less than-100% Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Pence could have played a more loose and relaxed version of his game like he did in 2012. Whether or not that would have given the Phillies enough push to make the playoffs is difficult to imagine. In 2013, the Phillies would have had a better outfield for certain than in 2012. You could say that the combination of Pence paired with Brown’s scorching stretches of the season could have been a lethal combination. One has to remember that it took Brown being moved up in the lineup, even with the presence of Howard and Utley, to give him a chance to flourish in a significant role. Had the Phillies kept Pence, its tough to imagine Brown would have been moved up so far in the lineup to produce at the clip he did.

In his time with the Giants, Pence has shown the ability to have stretches of the season that can carry a team. However, the San Francisco clubhouse seemed like an atmosphere that needed a jolt. There was no way that Pence could have walked into the Phillies dugout and become the emotional leader of a team that approached the game in a different manner. When the Phillies were winning division titles and contending for World Series, they played a much cooler, more steady game that stood up in the heat of pennant races. When other teams were falling by the wayside, the Phillies were always able to pull away in August and September when others allowed the magnitude of the situation get the best of them. If you look at the corner outfielders that the Phillies have allowed to walk away between Jayson Werth and Hunter Pence, while both put struggling teams on their backs for large chunks of the 2013 seasons, they did it in much different ways.

Hunter Pence feeds on his emotion and the emotion of fans. He is a player that needs to be loved and is at his best when he is leading a streak or comeback and showering in the adoration. The Giants were able to exceed in their unexpected run because there was little pressure on them compared to the other teams in the race. They could play their style of game without having to keep up appearances for the national media. The Giants style of play masked Pence’s shortcomings and allowed him to play the freeflowing style that made him the player he is. Werth, on the other hand, showed that at 100% healthy, he can be a player worth the money that the Nationals payed him for. After the rest of the league had beaten up on the darlings of Major League Baseball for months, Werth put the pressure on his team on his shoulders and accepted the villain role that had, perhaps inadvertently, been placed on his team. Werth displayed the type of steady, at times spectacular, play that made him a fan favorite in Philadelphia. The Nationals nearly made a 2007 Phillies-esque playoff run thanks in large part to the play of Werth, who has finally become the player the Nationals paid for in 2010.

Mar 28, 2013; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros first baseman Jonathan Singleton (14) celebrates after hitting his second home run of the game during the third inning against the Detroit Tigers at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports

For me, the deciding factor with the Pence deal has to do with everything besides Pence. If you were to ask me if  I would pay the $18 million a year for Pence if it meant keeping Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Singleton. It looks as if the Phillies will not get anything on their end of the trade, and, really for the first time in any of their trades over the last five years, allowed two very important prospects join a new organization. I was not a huge fan of Pence in his time in the Phillies. I found that his carefree approach to the game sometimes bordered on careless. Young players can get away with that style of play, but when you are expected to be a clubhouse leader, one must learn how to lead by example. My opinion on Pence as a player is irrelevant though. If the Phillies were willing to pay two aging players double-digit salaries after Pence was traded away, there is no way a Pence-level contract would have put them in a serious bind moving ahead. With how far and fast Ryan Howard has deteriorated, to not have Jonathan Singleton waiting to replace him in the minors is a devastating blow to the organization. As solid a prospect as Cosart is, not having Singleton poised to take over in the middle of the lineup for the Phillies is a franchise-altering absence. Ryan Howard carried the Phillies to the upper-echelon on his shoulders for almost half a decade. The Phillies could have handled his breakdown much better had they had a similar prospect waiting to take over for ‘The Big Piece’ when it was his time.

Hunter Pence would not have helped the Phillies make the playoffs either of the past two seasons. He was probably worth a long-term contract while the team was rebuilding. The reason I would not have made the trade is that the Phillies look as if they are light years away from becoming a contender again with how lacking their farm system is in terms of high-level talent. With how the MLB is shifting toward a league that is no longer dominated by the teams who spend the most on free agents, the Phillies definitely would trade still having Pence on their team in two playoff-less years if it meant they could keep Singleton and Cosart.