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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Was the Phillies Trade for Hunter Pence One of Baseball's All-Time Blunders?

The big news this week (well, one thing from the non-game front, at least) is the report that the Phillies may have accidentally sent the Astros a player that they didn’t mean to in the Hunter Pence trade. It’s worth noting that this was initially reported by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, so maybe there’s some bias here, but it’s worth exploring a question it gave me: how bad was the Hunter Pence trade?

First, some background. Pence was traded in the middle of the 2011 season. The Phillies, in need of a corner outfielder to replace Jayson Werth, were a natural fit for his services, and so they acquired him for the next two and a half years at the price of Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton, Josh Zeid, and a player to be named later that later became Domingo Santana (the player who may or may not have been included by accident). The Phillies were upset in the first round of the playoffs that season, and, after a disappointing start to the 2012 season, shipped Pence off to San Francisco.

Now, I think it’s pretty easy to say that this trade doesn’t look great for Philadelphia. Singleton is off to a solid start for his career, Cosart has been good and shows signs of improvement, and Santana is triple slashing a .295/.368/.498 line in AAA as a 21 year old (nearly six years below that league’s average age). We should give it a few years to be sure, but right now, you have to at least acknowledge that that is a lot to give up for a guy who hung around for only a year before being sent off for a disappointing return (more on that in a bit, though).

But really, that’s only part of the question. The bigger part is: is it a blunder? For those not aware, Rob Neyer once wrote a book called Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders. In it, he more or less laid out two ways for a trade to be classified. First, a trade could be bad without being a blunder. Sometimes teams just miss on evaluating players, and you give up a Jeff Bagwell in order to get a piece you need to make a playoff run. For every Bagwell that turns out well for the rebuilding team, there are ten Brett Wallaces that fail to make a Hall-level impact.

However, if there were other factors involved, it could be a blunder. Was it a misread of the team’s situation? Was it a shortsighted trade made partly out of spite? Was there some other factor that made it particularly bad? Only then could it be qualified as a blunder.


Well, I think needless to say that, if the reports are true and the Phillies accidentally traded away a player (Domingo Santana, according to the story, was not meant to be on the list of players given to the Astros to pick from to complete the deal), then the deal is automatically a blunder in my book if Santana provides any value, even just appearing on top prospect lists. MLB.com has him #96 overall and #7 in the system, Keith Law has him at #11 and Top Ten in any other team, Fangraphs has him #8 on the team. The consensus, really, it seems, is that he’s about seventh in the Astros’ system. Giving another team an eventual back-of-the-top #100 guy by accident is hilariously bad management.

However, the Phillies’ front office has denied it (which isn’t surprising, really, and doesn’t tell us too much). However, there are other ways for the deal to be a blunder; namely, by being a gross overpay. This might even be able to shed light on whether the team accidentally included Santana, in some way (if they did grossly overpay, then it would make some degree of sense if they didn’t mean to).

The best way I could think of determining this was looking at a bunch of trades of above-average outfielders made in the recent past. When evaluating a trade made with prospects, it’s important to not fall under the problem of using hindsight. So, I’ll stick to what we knew at the time; prospects will be referenced to with how they were ranked and expectations for them rather than how they turned out.

And so, we begin. What have above-average outfielders been traded for in the recent past?

Let’s start with the first Hunter Pence trade. The first Pence trade saw him going to Philadelphia at the cost of Singleton, Cosart, Zeid, and Santana. Before the season of the trade, Cosart was ranked #70 on Baseball America’s (BA) prospect rankings. After the year, he would be placed at #50, while MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus (BP) would add him on their lists at #61 and #48, respectively. Singleton was #39 on BA’s list and #63 on BP’s list in 2011, and the following year would go #34-#44-#73 in BA-MLB-BP rankings. Zeid was a 24 year old reliever in AA more or less. Lastly, Santana was not on any lists yet, but he was an 18-year-old in A ball more than holding his own while being well below the average age for the league.

What makes this tricky is that the Phillies weren’t just getting a summer of Pence; they had him under contract for the following two seasons as well. That makes our list a little harder to compile. I do have a few cases, though.

Michael Bourn was traded around the same time, and was about equal quality to Pence. Although, the Braves got a year less of Bourn, who was a year closer to free agency at the time. The Braves kind of took the Astros to the cleaners on that one, actually; Ed Wade couldn’t pry away any of the Braves’ top four pitching prospects for an all-star outfielder. Instead, the team got a 26-year AAA reliever (Juan Abreu), a 23-year-old in AA with unimpressive numbers (Paul Clemens), a 21-year-old in AA with similar numbers (Brett Oberholtzer), and a 24-year-old outfielder with an OPS+ of ~68 who had been on prospect lists two years prior while also running in to drug trouble (Jordan Schafer, who would also end up arrested after the season). That’s…not a great start to compare, to be honest.

Denard Span was also traded recently. The Nationals acquired two years of the All-Star center fielder coming off a 5-win campaign (Baseball-Reference WAR) in December 2012. For the 2013 and 14 seasons, Span cost the Nationals Alex Meyer, a former first round picks. Rankings on Meyer going in to 2013 had him as a top prospect (#59 BA/#40 MLB/#88 BP). And that was it. Again, not looking so hot for Amaro.

How about Curtis Granderson? The centerfielder was traded from Detroit as part of a three-way deal in the 2009-10 offseason, with the Yankees getting him with four seasons left on his contract signed during arbitration. The Yankees only got Granderson, though, which makes things a little easier for us; to the Yankees, Granderson was worth Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, and Phil Coke. Coke was a 27-year-old reliever in the majors and had never been on a prospect list. Kennedy was a 24-year-old in the Majors who had shown promise but also an injury history; he also had been ranked #45 by Baseball America and #34 by Baseball Prospectus back in 2008 (MLB.com’s rankings aren’t on Baseball-Reference that far back). Jackson, meanwhile, had been ranked #36 and #46 by those two publications going in to the 2009 season, but would drop to #76 and #49 going in to 2010. That’s maybe comparable, but the Yankees were getting an extra season-and-a-half of a player who was both 1) better than Hunter Pence and 2) a centerfielder at the time, not a corner outfielder. Still not looking good.

The Justin Upton trade sounds like a good comparison, given that both were right fielders with about the same amount of team control left (Upton had three full seasons under control left when the Diamondbacks sent him to the Braves), although Upton definitely came with a better track record. For Upton and Chris Johnson, Arizona got a season of Martin Prado (later signed to an extension, so more or less at market value), Randall Delgado (a 23-year-old ranked 35/42/41 going in to the season), Zeke Spruill (a 22-year-old at AA with solid but not stellar numbers), Brandon Drury (a 19-year-old with a .603 OPS in A ball), and Nick Ahmed (a 22-year old middle infielder who had just posted decent numbers, but in high A ball. That’s probably the closest match we can find to the Pence deal…but the Pence package still seems a lot deeper, especially considering Upton had more of a track record than Pence at the time (he was a year removed from finishing fourth in the MVP voting, after all).

The only one I can find that’s clearly a better package is the Nick Swisher deal. Back in January 2008, the A’s sent Swisher to the White Sox for Fautino De Los Santos, Gio Gonzalez, and Ryan Sweeney. After a disappointing year on the South Side, Chicago would sell Swisher to New York for pennies on the dollar. Sweeney had been ranked #55 in BA and #69 in BP. The year before, although his 2007 rookie season was a little disappointing. Gonzalez would be ranked #26 and #56 (BA/BP) going in to the 2008 season, while De Los Santos would be ranked #60 and #46. That’s an incredible haul it seems, and for a player similar to Pence-both were corner outfielders, while their OPS+ in the seasons leading up to trades were 126 and 125 (Swisher) against 128 and 112 (Pence, so the 128 was just a half season before the trade). I mean, to be fair, Swisher had been hitting better for a little longer, but that seems to justify the Pence deal, right?

Well, no; Swisher was not only two years younger at the time of the trade, but also under contract for five seasons. As in, twice as long as Pence was under contract for. That’s what it takes to find a package that costs more than what the Phillies gave up for Pence; a similar player with a slightly better history, a year and a half younger, and twice as many years under contract.

There is one other trade we can look at, though: what the Phillies sold Pence for to the Giants next year. After acquiring them, Pence played better down the stretch than he ever had before, posting a 159 OPS+ in the final 54 games for Philly. Regression struck hard, though, and he only posted a 109 mark to start the next season (meaning his overall OPS+ for Philly was…126, go figure). San Francisco acquired him for Nate Schierholtz, Seth Rosin, and Tommy Joseph. Schierholtz was a platoon outfielder whose contract would run out after the season, so a non-factor. Rosin was a 23-year-old reliever in High A (so league average) with unremarkable numbers; in fact, the Phillies would leave him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft after 2013. He would be passed around, posting a 6.75 ERA in 4 innings for the Rangers before winding up back in the Phillie farm system. He has a 6.26 ERA at AAA right now.

That just leaves Tommy Joseph, who, to be fair, is a good player. He’s still yet to appear on any prospect lists at 22 (although he’s in AA, so there’s still time), but he was, at the time of the trade, a 20-year-old catcher holding his own at AA…which sounds kind of like what I said for Santana. So, after one season of Hunter Pence, the best deal that Ruben Amaro, Jr. could find for Pence (still under contract for a year and a half, remember) was centered around a guy who might not have even been in the top three players Amaro given up to get him.

Heck, this package sounds worse than the deal Ed Wade got for Michael Bourn, and we already agreed that was a pretty bad misreading by Wade of his situation. Even if Amaro didn’t give up Domingo Santana by accident, that still sounds like a mistake on Amaro’s part. I feel pretty comfortable lumping his part of this deal in with the pantheon of baseball blunders. If nothing else, it certainly jumpstarted the Astros' rebuilding process.

1 comment:

  1. Great Article---That Pence trade must be infuriating for Phillies fans---but as a Astro fan I am loving it. Just wish we woulda held on to Bourn instead of taking that crappy return

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