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Trade Retrospective: Astros trade Hunter Pence to the Phillies

Midway through 2011, the Astros got a nice prospect package for Pence, while the Phillies got a big upgrade in the outfield.

David Maialetti, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

For the second straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

At the 2011 trade deadline, the Astros finally pulled the trigger on the Hunter Pence trade. They sent him to the Phillies for a package of prospects headlined by Jarred Cosart and Jon Singleton.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will still be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades because anybody can get lucky. Process over results. That being said, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties in terms of the major players involved.

The Deal

After five seasons of struggles, the Astros had finally hit rock bottom. At the time of the trade, they were 35-71 and on their way to a 106-loss season. They were easily the worst team in baseball, with no hope of getting better any time soon. It was time for them to begin what would become one of the most extreme rebuilds in MLB history.

The Astros received a prospect package that could be optimistically evaluated as fair, or pessimistically evaluated as a bit light. Jarred Cosart and Jon Singleton represented high-risk, high-reward players. They would have done better to get at least one safer prospect as part of this package. That being said, they significantly boosted their farm system. Prospect analysts generally saw Cosart as the team’s new number one prospect, and Singleton as their new number two prospect.

GM Ed Wade was really taking a gamble on these guys. If they hit their ceilings, Wade would look brilliant, and he would have made great progress towards the Astros’ rebuild. However, if they turned into busts, he would have traded away his best player for nothing and set the rebuild back significantly. As it turned out, from his perspective, it didn’t matter, because he got fired later that year anyway.

The Phillies were on the complete opposite end of the competitive spectrum. They were 66-39 and would end up finishing the season with a league-best 102 wins. The team needed no help to win the division, and they instead were trying to give themselves every advantage in the postseason. Pence was not a rental, either, as he still had two and a half years of control left at arbitration prices. Despite the fact that the team could lose Roy Oswalt to free agency that winter, there was no reason to believe that their window would close after 2011. At that point, Oswalt was more of a league-average starter, anyway; the Phillies’ future looked bright.

Pence had been a consistently above-average player throughout his four and a half seasons in the league. He was worth about 16 WAR as an Astro, and hit .290/.339/.479 in Houston while playing good defense in right field. He would be a huge upgrade over the disastrous Raúl Ibañez, whose below-average hitting and terrible left field defense had already been worth worse than -1 WAR for the Phillies that season.

The biggest knock on Pence was that he did not walk much, so he was very reliant on batting average and his high BABIPs in order to maintain good OBPs. His 129 wRC+ at the time of his trade was the highest since his rookie season, and it was largely the result of his .368 BABIP. In his rookie year he had a .377 BABIP. Both are unsustainably high for the vast majority of players.

Both teams got what they needed out of the deal, with the Astros taking on a significant amount of risk in order to accelerate their rebuild. Unfortunately for both sides, things did not work out so well.

The Results

Pence was outstanding for the rest of 2011, hitting .324/.394/.560 for the Phillies. Unfortunately, he was a non-factor in the Phillies’ first round exit that postseason.

The most baffling decision that the Phillies made was keeping Ibañez and sending Domonic Brown to the minors. Brown was clearly the better player, despite having some struggles of his own defensively. Oh, and at age 23, he was 16 years younger than Ibañez. Brown was better and showed promise, but the Phillies chose to keep trudging Ibañez out to left field everyday for whatever reason. He finished the season with -2 WAR. It didn’t hurt the team that season, and Brown sadly turned out to be a bust, but unnecessarily sending him to the minors in 2011 did not help him any. In other words, it was poor decision-making, but the Phillies got lucky.

The Phillies’ window started to close a lot quicker than expected in 2012 for a variety of reasons that we won’t get into here. Suffice to say that the team was 45-57 at the trade deadline and in last place. Pence was expected to make about $14 million in arbitration the following year, and the declining Phillies wanted no part of that. He was traded to the Giants in a salary dump.

What happened with Jarred Cosart and Jon Singleton was far more interesting. Cosart had a nice debut in 2013 with a 2.25 RA9 and 2.6 WAR in only 10 starts. However, his FIP was over two runs higher than his RA9 because he struck out few hitters and walked a ton of them. He actually walked more hitters than he struck out. The regression monster came for him in 2014, when he turned in a 4.72 RA9 in 20 starts, and still had the same issues with control and not striking anybody out.

Cosart was also known to have makeup concerns. His lack of performance combined with his character concerns led to the Astros trading him to the Marlins at the 2014 trade deadline. The trade was headlined by Jake Marisnick and Colin Moran. It was seen as a great haul for the Astros at the time. At the 2016 trade deadline, Cosart was traded to the Padres in exchange for Andrew Cashner. It might be best for the Padres to try him as a reliever in 2017.

Singleton struggled with a marijuana addiction that led to a 50-game suspension at the beginning of the 2013 minor league season. He rehabilitated and made his major league debut in 2014. Unfortunately, his story so far is that of a bust. He only hit .171/.290/.331 in 420 PA through 2015. He spent all of 2016 in Triple A and hit 202/.337/.390, which is not even league average for Triple A. He is expected to begin 2017 still in Triple A.

The most interesting thing about Singleton is that he ended up signing a long-term deal before he even made his major league debut. It was the first time that had ever happened. It was also ridiculously team friendly. It was a five-year, $10 million deal plus three team option years. The Astros would pay more for his pre-arbitration years, but if he panned out, they would save a ton of money during his three arbitration years and get his two free agent years at a discount. The Astros probably regret that now, but the advantage of this kind of extension is still obvious: they committed so little money that Singleton’s poor performance doesn’t matter much.

Let’s take a look at the trade ultimately worked out for both teams.

Phillies Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Hunter Pence 2 3.1 $9.30
Salaries are approximated for partial seasons. All data are just from time spent on the Phillies.

Astros Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Jarred Cosart 6 3.2 $0.50
Jon Singleton 6 -1 $10
Total 12 2.2 $10.50
Salaries are approximated for partial seasons. All data are just from time spent on the Astros.

The Pence deal did not really work out for either side, unfortunately. I am sure that it would have looked better for the Phillies had they hung on to him, but they had no need to. However, it is hard to fault each team’s reasoning behind the deal. Good process, bad results.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.