The Astros entered 2013 with a shockingly low payroll by today's standards thanks to a number of offseason trades that were intended to boost their farm system. It's nothing new for Houston -- a team that hasn't finished above .500 since the 2008 season. General manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff have done a terrific job of amassing young talent to build promise for the future, but the first step may have been taken by Luhnow's predecessor -- Ed Wade.
In July 2011, the last-place Astros had a number of desireable pieces on their roster, but perhaps none more appealing than Hunter Pence. The 28-year-old right fielder was hitting .308/.356/.471 with 11 homers when the Astros traded him to the Phillies (along with $2MM) for a package of four prospects: first baseman Jonathan Singleton (19 years old at the time), right-hander Jarred Cosart (21), right-hander Josh Zeid (24) and right fielder Domingo Santana (18).
Let's look at all of the players involved...
The Major League Side
- Hunter Pence: The Phillies acquired a year-and-a-half of Pence's service in the deal. He slid into the Phillies' lineup and immediately provided a boost. Pence had homered 11 times in 100 games for the Astros but matched that total in just 54 games for the Phils. He closed out the season on a torrid pace, hitting .324/.394/.560 in 236 trips to the plate as the Phillies marched to a 102-win season and a first-place finish. Pence's second season with the Phillies didn't go as well; his Musial-esque 159 OPS+ dropped to 108, and he was eventually traded to the Giants for a package of players highlighted by catcher Tommy Joseph (that trade could be a whole new post). All told, the Phillies parted with four prospects and were rewarded with 676 plate appearances worth of .289/.357/.486 production and average right field defense. Fangraphs pegs Pence's value in Phildelphia at 3.6 wins above replacement.
The Minor League Side
- Jonathan Singleton: Singleton has emerged as the best prospect in this deal (Cosart, at the time, was regarded slightly higher). Baseball America ranked him as the game's 39th-best prospect prior to 2011, and he now occupies the No. 27 spot on that list. MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo agrees with that ranking and places him first among Astros prospects. BA calls Singleton "the best first base prospect in baseball," noting his plus raw power and ability to hit to all fields. Mayo agrees that he's the best first base prospect in the game, and both think that Singleton could be in the Majors as soon as this season. He hit .284/.396/.497 with 21 homers as a 20-year-old at Double-A last season. Houston fans will have to wait, however, as Singleton is serving a 50-game suspension after testing positive for marijuana.
- Jarred Cosart: Cosart's stock has fallen after a 2012 season that was slowed by recurring blisters on his pitching hand. He still posted a solid 3.30 ERA, 7.2 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9 in 114 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. He's fallen out of BA's Top 100 and ranks as Houston's No. 7 prospect in their eyes, but Mayo is more of a believer; he ranks Cosart No. 89 in the game and No. 4 in the Astros' system. Both feel that Cosart's stock would soar if he could improve his command of a plus curveball with 11-to-5 break, as it would complement what BA refers to an "electric" fastball that sits 96-97 mph. Some feel that Cosart could end up as a closer, but control of his curveball could have him sitting atop Houston's rotation in the near future.
- Domingo Santana: Santana, the youngest player in the trade, was included as a PTBNL and viewed a high-risk prospect. He's emerged as the team's No. 11 prospect per BA and No. 13 prospect per Mayo. BA writes that he has significant raw power and an advanced opposite-field approach to pair with enough athleticism to develop into a regular right fielder if things break right. Mayo concurs with that analysis and notes that he has "an outstanding arm that fits perfectly in right field, along with his offensive profile."
- Josh Zeid: Zeid doesn't rank among the Top 30 prospects in Houston's system per BA or the Top 20 per Mayo, but he ranked as Philadelphia's 23rd prospect at the time of the trade. BA credited Zeid with the best slider in Philly's farm system following the 2010 season, noting that his fastball can reach 97 mph when he's serving in a relief role. That's exactly what he's done since coming to Houston, but he posted an ugly 5.59 ERA in 56 1/3 innings at Double-A last season. However, his 10.5 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 and strong 3.52 FIP suggest that there are better times ahead for the 26-year-old. He's pitching at Triple-A Oklahoma City to open this season.
The Phillies gave up quite a bit of talent in order to land Pence, and the Astros are clearly better off for it. Twenty percent of the players in Houston's Top 15 prospects were acquired via this trade, and while there are question marks surrounding some of them, Singleton's future looks more certain. Philadelphia, meanwhile, received a boost to their lineup that helped cement a division championship. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was able to flip Pence one year later to recoup some of the prospect value that he gave up in order to land Pence.
The Phillies got precisely what they were hoping for in Pence, but the Astros appear to be better positioned for the long-haul as a result. Scenarios like this are often the case when dealing prospects for short-term help at the Major League level. Had the Phillies won a World Series title in 2011, there wouldn't be much second-guessing the trade. As it stands, Houston picked up enough future upside that they could eventually make Philadelphia fans regret the deal.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.