The Rays have checked in with the Rangers about the availability of outfielder/DH Hunter Pence, according to MLB.com’s Jon Morosi (via Twitter). The possibility of a match was first noted by MLB Network Radio’s Jim Duquette.
It’s not known how serious the talks are, but it does seem reasonable at this point to presume that Pence can be had. The Rangers had dabbled with pursuit of a postseason spot, but a slide has left the club staring up at an all-but-insurmountable 6.5-game gap from the second Wild Card spot. Given the circumstances, the Texas club is likely to dangle its pending free agents — if not a few other assets.
On the Rays’ side, the organization has seen its own postseason position erode steadily over the course of the season. It’s hard to imagine them catching the division-leading Yankees. It’ll take a big effort even to win a Wild Card spot. The two positions are held presently by the Indians and Athletics, with the Rays one game back and the Red Sox also posing a serious threat.
While the Tampa Bay team is obviously going to attempt to improve, it doesn’t have sufficient incentive to truly go for broke. That makes it hard to imagine the Rays giving up too much future value for rental assets. In the case of Pence, however, the acquisition cost will likely be rather manageable.
Pence has had a heck of a bounceback season at 36 years of age. He’s through 232 plate appearances of .290/.349/.581 hitting with 15 home runs. Statcast credits the veteran with a strong 43.1% hard-hit rate and 91.4 mph average exit velo, along with a 10.5 degree launch angle that’s about double his numbers in recent seasons. Pence has outperformed his contact quality, but not by a huge amount (.387 wOBA vs. .365 xwOBA).
That said, it’s still worth wondering whether Pence will be able to sustain this kind of outburst. And he hasn’t been trusted with many innings in the outfield after several seasons of somewhat poorly reviewed glovework. His contract is quite affordable — $2MM with $1.25MM in incentives — but there probably isn’t an abundance of demand. Unless National League teams see Pence as an option to slide back out to the field rather than functioning mostly as a DH, as he has in Texas, the primary pursuers would seem to come from the American League ranks. Yet most of the AL contenders have accounted for their bat-only plate appearances.
The fit with the Rays isn’t flawless, either, but it’s possible to imagine how Pence would fit on the roster. In terms of existing DH possibilities, the club has a rotating cast of possibilities on the right side but no clear bat-only piece. In terms of left-handed hitters, Ji-Man Choi has been increasingly crowded out by Nate Lowe at first base. Choi is a strong option when facing right-handed pitching but has struggled mightily in limited opportunities against southpaws. Pence, who has long maintained limited platoon splits and thrived both with and without the platoon advantage this year, could share time with Choi or replace him entirely as a primary DH.