Astros face dilemma with sought-after Pence

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

Depending on where one gets one’s information this time of year, Hunter Pence(notes) is being shopped or he is not. Eight teams are in, or one is in. He’s the future in Houston or just passing through.

The fact is, the Houston Astros appear stuck in the middle of it all – between ownerships, between organizational strategies, between budgets and, as usual, between losing streaks.

The sense outside the organization is that Pence will not be traded. That might be news to the handful of teams said to be engaged with – or trying to engage – the Astros in the hopes of acquiring Pence, so the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, et al. Or, it might not be.

Hunter Pence is batting .307 with 11 home runs and 62 RBIs. He hit 25 homers in each of the last three seasons.
(Getty Images)

What we know is new Astros owner Jim Crane apparently hopes to machete some $15 million from the payroll for 2012. And we know that Carlos Lee(notes) (due $18.5 million in 2012) will be back, like it or not, unless they move the stadium and neglect to leave a forwarding address. That leaves Wandy Rodriguez(notes) (guaranteed $25.5 million over the next three years), Brett Myers(notes) (guaranteed $14 million for next two), and Pence, an All-Star and .307 hitter who plays the game hard and is due a decent arbitration raise over this year's $6.9 million.

Asked why the Astros would consider trading their best and most marketable player, one rival GM explained that the Astros probably won’t be competitive before Pence leaves for free agency (after 2013) anyway and that the farm system needs a serious rebuild, which a trade of Pence might help start.

On the other hand, there’d be few reasons to go to Minute Maid Park if not for Pence. And he is outgoing owner Drayton McLane's favorite player, which shouldn’t be significant, but, sources say, it is.

The consensus in the clubhouse, according to one player, is that Pence will not be dealt, because of all the reasons he shouldn’t be: cornerstone player, fan favorite, community minded, great example for the younger players who still have a lot of games to lose before anything will improve in Houston.

With Carlos Beltran(notes) off the board, however, Astros GM Ed Wade is finding more interest in Pence, who, with Carlos Quentin(notes) and B.J. Upton(notes), is the best outfielder remaining. So, Wade keeps picking up the phone, and keeps asking other organizations to restock his farm system, and wonders if one of these days he might have to break McLane’s heart, along with those of much of his fan base.

Maybe offers from the Phillies and Braves – or Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates – are reaching a place where Wade simply can’t say no.

But, at some point, somebody’s going to have to start putting the Astros back together again. And Hunter Pence would be a perfect place to start.

Those close to the club believe Rodriguez and infielder Clint Barmes(notes), and perhaps even Michael Bourn(notes), are more likely to be traded than Pence.

The New York Yankees and Texas Rangers were showing the most interest in Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda(notes) as of Thursday night. The Yankees continue their talks with the Colorado Rockies regarding Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), as well.

The Dodgers have not yet asked Kuroda to waive his no-trade clause.

Heath Bell(notes) remains the hottest reliever on the market. His availability and the Rangers’ interest seemed to draw ever more connected Wednesday night, when Rangers manager Ron Washington questioned existing closer Neftali Feliz’s(notes) “fire.”

The Angels are looking for bullpen help, but, in spite of rookie closer Jordan Walden’s(notes) occasional missteps, don’t seem to be inclined to go as big as Bell.

Aramis Ramirez

The Angels’ real issue is on offense, but the glut of outfielders on the market doesn’t help them. They could upgrade at third base, where Aramis Ramirez(notes) may or may not be available, and at catcher, with Chris Iannetta(notes) or Ramon Hernandez(notes).

Ramirez suggested to the Chicago Sun-Times he wouldn’t necessarily veto any trade.

“I understand it’s a business,” he told the paper. “If they’re looking to rebuild, I can’t fit in. So we’ll see.”

The Angels had real interest in Ramirez after the 2006 season, when Ramirez re-signed with the Cubs rather than run through the full free-agent process. Four-and-a-half years later, the Angels are still looking for a third baseman with power.

Tony Rasmus, Colby’s dad, ushered his son out of St. Louis with this observation in the Toronto Sun: “Tony [La Russa] needed pitching and wanted to force the GM into making a trade, so he belittled Colby to the fans.”

The Brewers acquired Felipe Lopez(notes) from the Tampa Bay Rays and sent him to Triple-A. That could be the Band-Aid for Rickie Weeks(notes), or the Brewers could seek something more substantial in Jamey Carroll(notes) or Rafael Furcal(notes).

Furcal and, say, Barmes, could handle second base during Weeks’ absence, then slide to shortstop when Weeks returns.

The Tigers’ search for starting pitching has been along the lines of Kuroda, Jeremy Guthrie(notes) and Jason Marquis(notes). Some – like Kuroda – they view as a third starter should they advance to the postseason. Others – like Guthrie – more like an end-of-the-rotation guy.

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