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What do you guys think Hunter Pence having to go through with arbitration signals about the Astros long term plans? Do you think this means the Astros think their budding crop of minor leaguers are a better alternative to a long-term deal with Pence? -- Stefon, Lubbock
I'd like to think taking Pence to arbitration means something. I'd like to think the fact Pence was the first Astro since Darryl Kile to win an arbitration hearing also means something. Unfortunately, I just don't see it.
First off, the Astros have said many, many times that their base philosophy is not to sign guys to long-term deals before they get closer to free agency. Wandy had to go through arbitration twice. Even Roy Oswalt went through arbitration once before signing a two-year deal which bought out his last two arbitration years.
To find a player who was given a big contract without going through arbitration, you have to go back to Lance Berkman, who got a three-year, 10.5 million dollar deal in 2002, after just two full seasons in the majors. He was coming off a sixth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting and a fifth-place finish in the 2001 MVP race. Berkman also had the second-best year of his career in 2002 after he signed the extension.
What this signals is pretty simple: that the Astros don't view Pence, Wandy or Bourn as a superstar player. They're all three very good players, but none capable of carrying a team. Otherwise, they'd be locked up to long-term, Ryan Braun-esque deals.
After the jump, I'll talk about the minor league options and what they mean to Pence...
I like a lot of the minor leaguers in the Astros system. A guy like Ariel Ovando might emerge in the next couple of seasons, staking a claim to that right field spot. However, the way the system currently sits, there is no one who could provide the power that Pence consistently does. In this lineup, power is key.
Are there guys who could fill in? Certainly. Let's run through some names:
J.B. Shuck - While the affectionately-named "Shuckers" is one of my favorite players, I'm not sure he's enough of a fit power-wise to take over here. He's fast enough that his defense would probably be pretty good in right, even though his arm might not be a great fit. He's a scrappy hitter who can get on base and steal a base or two, but he'll probably struggle to hit 10 homers in the majors with 20-odd doubles. That's okay to have from one or two positions, but I don't think the Astros can view Shuck as a longer-term solution for right field than Pence.
J.D. Martinez -More of a complete package than Shuck at the plate, Martinez' biggest flaw is his defense. His knees make him a poor bet to move to first base, though he does show some athleticism in the outfield. Whether he could play every day in right is up for debate, as is his power potential. I happen to think he'll gain at least 20-homer power at some point, but the evidence right now suggests otherwise. Notice how Martinez hasn't even appeared as a blip on these best prospect lists? If scouts are that down on him despite his production, we have to adjust our expectations slightly.
Brian Bogusevic - He's played all three outfield spots and has some decent skills. He plays okay in the field, but doesn't do anything to stand out. He can hit maybe .270 in the big leagues but lacks power. He's got good base running instincts, but I'm not sure about his speed. In short, Bogey is probably better suited as a fourth or fifth outfielder than as a starter.
Telvin Nash - It'd be a stretch to give Nash the right field job, simply because he's apparently shaky enough in left field. From the little I've seen on him, he does look like he has a decent arm, but the real reason he's on here is his power potential. He's the only guy who could maybe hit more than 25 home runs a season. Of course, we don't know if he'll hit for average or if he can hit outside short season ball. So, he's probably not filling in for Pence any time soon.
T.J. Steele - Mr. Five Tool. The Next Cesar Cedeno. Will Not Be Healthy Enough To Compete Here.
Mike Kvasnicka - If the Astros compensatory pick in 2010 fails at third base, he may get another shot in the outfield. He didn't show much in the ways of batting prowess last season, but the word is he's a pretty professional hitter. If he could show a little bit of power and hit for a good average, he'd have a good shot at duplicating what Pence is doing right now. Of course, he's probably three years away from the big leagues, so he's not pushing Pence out of a long-term deal as is.
Drew Locke - He may have the pop to replace Pence, and he's played right in the minors, but I think Locke is more of an injury replacement or a bench outfielder as Jason Michaels slides into the lineup for Pence. He's just old enough to be considered a non-prospect, but he's done enough in the minors to get a shot.
Basically, if the Astros don't want to sign Pence long-term, they're going to have to find his replacement from outside the organization. It'll either come in a low-cost free agent signing to fill the gap before Ariel Ovando or Mike Kvasnicka are ready, or it'll be through a trade for another young right fielder. Which is why it looks more and more likely that Pence may be around for another three or four years.