At the trade deadline this year, the completely awful Giants were quiet. They had traded the only player other teams wanted (Eduardo Nuñez), and everyone else was old, bad, or expensive, unless they were old, bad, and expensive.
Hunter Pence was one of the latter. On July 31, his OPS was .637. His on-base percentage was .290. His defensive metrics were unkind. He had just eight doubles in 345 plate appearances, which is one of the lowest percentages from a corner outfielder in recent memory. He struck out about three-and-a-half times more than he walked. He was 34 and owed $18.5 million in 2018. I’ll guess there wasn’t a single team that called about him, unless they were willing to be bold enough to ask that the Giants pay his entire salary. Of all their broken players, he might have been the most brokenest.
At the beginning of September, I wrote about his historically discouraging season, and that’s when the Giants started saying that there were no guarantees about any of the incumbent outfielders. It looked like that was the end for Pence as the de facto starter. It was a great run, but it was over.
However, digging through some splits, I finally saw what Pence did after the deadline. For two months, Pence hit .289/.361/.457. He had six homers and three triples in 194 plate appearances, and perhaps more impressively, he walked 20 times to just 34 strikeouts. That was a much better ratio than the previous three months, and it reminded me of someone: It reminded me of Hunter Pence when he was right.
You’re skeptical, and I can understand that. He’s still going to be 35, which isn’t usually an age in which players overcome the struggles of the previous season.
What I keep coming back to, though, is that he’s a sunk cost, and I don’t mean that negatively this time. The Giants are going to pay him $18.5 million, regardless of what happens. That means their options are roughly ...
Pay another team to take him
I cannot possibly imagine this. If the Giants pay $17 million of his contract, I’m not sure if they get a C prospect back. Not worth it.
Make right field an offseason priority and put Pence on the bench
The Giants would consider this if some very specific dominoes fell, I would think, but they wouldn’t actively make it a priority. Center field, third base, and left field are a higher priority. There’s no sense spending $10 million to get Jay Bruce or Carlos Gonzalez, which would add up to a nearly $30 million right fielder, especially when those players have had their ups and downs, too.
J.D. Martinez probably made a lot of sense before he made himself an extra $100 million ($500,000 for every home run he hit in the second half), but I’m going to guarantee that even if the Giants wanted to spend that money, he wouldn’t want to spend the remaining prime years of his career at AT&T Park. Without Martinez, the free agent market is murky, at best. It’s also Melky if you’re really into reunions.
Assume Pence is going to play a substantial role on the team, but be flexible
This is the one. Assume that Pence is going to get 400 or 500 at-bats if he’s healthy. Don’t assume it’s in right field. Don’t assume anything. Just know that he’ll be around, and that his strong finish to the season gives him a small-but-valid chance to be the player he was just a season before.
If the Giants go after Justin Upton, whether via trade or free agency? Seems like he could be the left fielder and Pence could stay where he is. If the Giants get Martinez? Pence could move to left, or he could stay put. If the Giants swing a trade for, I don’t know, Gregory Polanco or Marcell Ozuna? Pence could move to left. If the Giants do one of these things and acquire a speedy center fielder? Pence could quasi-platoon with Denard Span as needed, unless he hits his way back into a full-time gig.
Whatever the Giants are going to do this offseason, part of the plan is still going to involve Pence. There will be some flexibility, which is a new wrinkle when it comes to the organization’s roster plans. For the last few years, he’s been the right fielder, no question, move on to the next spot on the roster. This year, the Giants are a little more free. The strong finish will allow them to start him without feeling too dejected, but the slow start will allow them to explore all sorts of permutations. (I think he would be a fine left fielder, but I thought that about Angel Pagan, too.)
The Giants can realistically upgrade four lineup spots this offseason: the entire outfield and third base. The first season of Hunter Pence made it imperative to explore all the options. The second season made it reasonable to expect him to play a substantial role, while not being so great that it made it unwise to explore those other options. In a weird, miserable season for both Pence and the Giants, but somehow the inflexibility of his contract has made it so the team can be a little flexible with how they attack the offseason.
This will all seem so funny when Shohei Otani is starting three games in right field out of every five, really.