Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bringing up Hunter Pence

On April 27, 2007 the Astros had just lost their seventh straight game to watch their 1/2-game lead vanish to a 5-game deficit. And on April 27, 2007 Phil Garner had Chris Burke in CF and Jason Lane in RF, and they were hitting .219 and .220, respectively. So the Astros called up a young Hunter Pence, who was raking in Round Rock. Astros County remembers this day, and Astros County rejoiced. But it wasn't an entirely popular decision.

The article from Alyson Footer said:
It took only 22 games -- and one very deflating seven-game losing streak -- for the Houston Astros to begin shaking up the team with hopes that a change of inventory may provide a boost in the win-loss column.

Following a 4-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, general manager Tim Purpura and manager Phil Garner announced that they made two roster moves and one internal adjustment. They purchased the contract of outfielder Hunter Pence from Triple-A Round Rock, designated left-hander Stephen Randolph for assignment and informed Chris Burke that he was no longer the starting center fielder and instead would be used in a utility role.

Pence will not just be in uniform for Saturday's game. He's going to start in center, indefinitely.

"We've got to find a way to get the offense rolling. We're getting the hits but not driving in the runs. Hunter's a kid who we really hope can help us with that. It's certainly asking a lot. But all the returns from Round Rock have been very postitive. We feel very good about this player. We feel like he can come up here and give us some energy."

"I think Hunter Pence deserves to play in the big leagues. He's got a bright future. I think he's very talented, and I don't object to them calling him up to try to spark us. But I think it's unfair to Chris. I think it sends the wrong message to the team that there's something drastic that needs to be fixed. I don't like it. If you're going to put Chris Burke on the bench, I think it's a horrible move. You have to let a guy settle in a little bit. Look at me, I'm hitting .200. Does that mean I'm going to end up hitting .230? Absolutely not. As an organization, you have to identify your talent and say, 'We believe in this guy,' and then give him a chance to play. Seventy at-bats is not a chance. That's a very, very small sliver of the season. Nothing against Hunter. I think he deserves to be here. I think he's going to do great when he gets a chance. But then my question is, what if Hunter comes up and struggles after 60 or 70 at-bats? Then you've got two guys thinking, 'What's going on here -- do I belong in this organization?' and that sort of thing. I don't think that's the right move, putting Chris on the bench."

"The thing is we don't need a bat. We're just not hitting. But when you're not hitting, you try to find an answer. Hunter Pence is a very high-ceiling young player. He could maybe inject some energy into the lineup. We'll see."

"We're gong to put [Pence] in center field and let him play and see what happens. But we've got a bunch of guys up and down the lineup -- we've had base hits and done some nice things. We just haven't put things together. We have to find something that's going to click."

Pence and the Astros went 11-7 until the Rangers came to town, which started a 1-11 spiral that effectively ended the Astros' chances in 2007, never getting within five games of the division lead after May 19. In those games Pence hit .356/.397/.644 to firmly establish himself as an everyday outfielder.

But the long-term financial impact of this decision will be felt this off-season, because by calling Pence up on April 28, 2007 he will qualify as a Super Two player.

What the heck is a Super Two player? According to the MLBPA, a Super Two is a player with more than two years, but less than three years, of days served on an active Major League roster. What's the distinction? A player with two years + 86 days of service are eligible, and the 17% of those players with the most service time are considered Super Twos.

What's the advantage? They get to go to arbitration four times, as opposed to three times. And that means an extra year of $Big, and not signing for the league minimum, or close to it (Pence made $439,000 in 2009).

So when Hunter Pence started in center field on April 28, 2007, his service time clock started running, and to date he has accumulated 2 years and 156 days of service time.

If the Astros wanted to avoid the extra pay day, they should have waited to call him up until July 8, as it would have been 85 days until the end of the season, one day short of the requirement for Super Two status.

But they didn't.

So Pence will go to arbitration a fourth time before he's eligible for free agency, as no Super Two has accumulated less than 130 days of service in that extra year since 2007.

No doubt that Pence's time in Houston in 2007 established his career and gave him the basis for successful 2008 and 2009 seasons - but was it worth an extra $3-5 million?

Update: And the answer can be, "Yep."