The Hunter Pence trade just keeps on giving (to the Astros)

With the promotion of Domingo Santana, the Astros have now graduated all four prospects they received three years ago when they traded Hunter Pence to the Phillies. Just how lopsided does that deal look now?

Hunter Pence didn't do a whole lot for the Phillies, but his trade has sure helped the Astros.

Patrick McDermott / Getty Images North America

Tuesday, the Astros made a bunch of moves, but the biggest was the promotion of outfield prospect Domingo Santana. As Aaron Gleeman pointed out,  

Santana is the big draw, as the 21-year-old outfielder hit .304 with 13 homers and an .885 OPS in 84 games at Triple-A after putting up similarly strong numbers at Double-A last season. He now joins Jon Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and Josh Zeid on the Astros’ roster after all four players were acquired from the Phillies as prospects in the Hunter Pence trade in 2011. That is starting to look like one of the more lopsided deals in recent history.

My first thought upon reading that paragraph: 24 years.

Or seasons, if you prefer. Or player-seasons, if you really prefer. Which I do.

When the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence, they potentially swapped 24 player-seasons for two-and-a-half player seasons. Which does indeed seem terribly lopsided. Especially now, since it seems like the Astros might actually get 24 player-seasons. Singleton and Cosart are now established major leaguers, General Zeid’s got a shot, and Santana does seem like the real deal. But let’s assume Cosart spends a year recovering from Tommy John Surgery and Zeid shuffles back and forth between Houston and Oklahoma City (because that’s what non-elite relief pitchers do in these enlightened times). Let’s also remember that Singleton signed a contract that keeps him under team control through 2021. So now we’re back to 24 player-seasons (give or take).

And what did the Phillies get? They got Captain Underpants for the last two months of that regular season. Pence did play exceptionally well, but the Phillies won 102 games and finished 13 lengths ahead of the second-place Braves. They’d have been just fine with John Mayberry and Ben Francisco in right field (not to mention Brandon Moss, who spent almost the entire season in the minors).

Yes, I know! Flags fly forever! Except the Phillies got knocked out by the Cardinals in their Division Series, with Pence collecting four singles in the five games.

But wait, our story’s not over. Pence was eligible for arbitration after that season (and the season after) and settled with the Phillies for $10.4 million. He didn’t play particularly well in 2012, but remained attractive. Right before the non-waivers trade deadline, with his Phillies a million games behind the real contenders, Pence landed with the San Francisco Giants for their stretch run.

What did the Phillies get from the Giants?

Tommy Joseph, Seth Rosin, and Nate Schierholtz.

And there’s your problem. That’s when trading for Hunter Pence became truly lopsided. Granted, the Phillies didn’t have nearly as much leverage as the Astros had, one year earlier. The Astros traded two months and two seasons of Pence; the Phillies had only the two months and one season to offer. But then that’s sort of the point.

When they acquired Pence, the Phillies gained a tiny improvement in their chances of winning the World Series, along with Joseph, Rosin, and Schierholtz. Schierholtz was (and is) a fourth outfielder, Rosin’s a 25-year-old, replacement-level relief pitcher, and Joseph is an almost-23-year-old catcher in Class AA who’s still got a chance to become a pretty good major leaguer.

So we don’t know yet. Which is, I know, terribly unsatisfying. Tommy Joseph isn’t a top prospect. But he might yet become one. Hell, maybe he’s the Rookie of the Year in 2016. It would still be lopsided, probably. But not as much.

I was wondering what I wrote about that trade back in 2011. Here’s the nut:

My point?

I've got a couple of them.

The first is that the Phillies did not trade -- and the Astros did not trade for -- a truly outstanding, can't-miss prospect. The Phillies traded for a couple of Florida State League players who will probably reach the majors but might not do much more than that. Singleton and Cosart are both too far from the majors to say more than that.

The second is that the Phillies, for all their considerable resources, can go to this well only so many times. Two years ago, the Phillies traded Carlos Carrasco and Lou Marson to the Indians for Cliff Lee. A few months later, the Phillies traded Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor and Travis d'Arnaud to the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay. A year ago, the Phillies traded Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar to the Astros for Roy Oswalt. Now they've traded two more of their best prospects for Hunter Pence.

Each of those moves made the Phillies better, in that moment, and that paragraph should serve as a stirring tribute to the Phillies' scouts and their player-development personnel, as the organization couldn't have made all those deals without a wealth of minor-league talent. The wellspring is going to dry up eventually, though; it's hard enough to accumulate that much talent, but doing it again is nearly impossible.

And what happens when the well is dry? Ruben Amaro is going to have to figure out a new way to win. Or be willing to lose for a year or two. Because while he's obviously quite accomplished at spending gobs of money and trading oodles of prospects, it's not clear what will happen when he can do just one of those things, or neither of them.

The well hasn’t gone completely dry. The Phillies do have a few interesting prospects. And all those guys they traded for all those veterans? Aside from the quartet who went to Houston for Pence, only Travis d’Arnaud still makes your hair stand on end. Still, it’s hard to deny that the Phillies are now old . . . which wouldn’t seem so bad, except they’re also bad. Which is a trick, though not a particularly difficult one.

It's hard to fault the Phillies for grabbing Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, and the Roy Oswalt deal doesn't seem to have cost them any high-quality major leaguers. But the Hunter Pence trade didn't make much sense then, and makes less sense now. How lopsided was it? We'll know for sure in about six years. Right now, it's not Bartolo Colon for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips. But a franchise can hope.

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