Chances are you’ve heard the various trade rumors involving Domonic Brown. It is no secret that the Philadelphia Phillies are hunting for a consistently-productive corner outfielder to help them push through the rest of the regular season and into October, and recent reports indicate that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. may be willing to part with Brown for an immediate outfield upgrade.
Paul Boye of Crashburn Alley and beat writers Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer and David Hale of Delaware Online have all penned columns defending the young right fielder from the torrent of criticism that reached fever pitch following yet another defensive gaffe in last night's 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants.
Brown is the symbol of an outfield in flux. With Raul Ibanez set to become a free agent after the season and Ben Francisco not living up to fans’ preseason hope, should the Phillies go all-in on the 2011-12 seasons at the expense of their future? Or should the Phillies stand pat with their current outfield and relatively good playoff chances, protecting their outfield in the future? It's a quandary that every general manager of a successful team finds himself dealing with, season-in and season-out.
The Phillies' outfield is more in flux than people realize. Not only does Ibanez become a free agent after the season, Shane Victorino can reach free agency after the 2012 season as well. The minor league system is not rich with outfield prospects at the Double-A level and above. So if the Phillies do acquire a corner outfielder -- say, Hunter Pence -- at the expense of Brown, many questions about the Phillies’ outfield still remain to be answered after the 2012 season.
Let's say the Phillies make a trade for Pence and give up Brown in the process. Their 2012 outfield would have Pence, Victorino, John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco. That outfield is not much better, if at all, than the one they have currently; it certainly wouldn't be as good or as cheap as the outfield they could have by keeping Brown. After the 2012 season, the Phillies would lose Victorino to free agency barring a contract extension. Even if we make a giant leap in logic and assume that a prospect such as Jiwan James or Tyson Gillies could step in at that point, they would go through the same growing pains that Brown is dealing with now, and it is very likely they wouldn't be anywhere close to as productive as Brown has been thus far, and certainly less productive than he would be at that point.
Here's a comparison to illustrate the differences, starting with a decision to trade for Pence and give up Brown:
2011 outfield: Ibanez (LF), Victorino (CF), Pence (RF), Francisco, Mayberry
2012: Francisco/Mayberry (LF), Victorino (CF), Pence (RF)
2013: Francisco/Mayberry, James (?), Gillies (?)
In contrast, if they stand pat and keep Brown:
2011: Ibanez (LF), Victorino (CF), Brown (RF), Francisco, Mayberry
2012: Francisco/Mayberry (LF), Victorino (CF), Brown (RF)
2013: Francisco/Mayberry, Brown (RF), James (?), Gillies (?)
There's a lot more question marks beyond the readiness of their outfield prospects; the Phillies may or may not sign Victorino to an extension, and they may or may not make additional free agent signings or trades for outfielders.
The only noticeable plus from trading for Pence is an immediate outfield upgrade, but even that is debatable. The rest-of-season ZiPS projections found at FanGraphs see very little difference between Brown and Pence the rest of the way, pegging Brown for a .344 wOBA and Pence for a .351 wOBA. While Pence's current .821 OPS represents a career high, he has cooled off considerably in the past two months: In April and May, he posted an .830 and .914 OPS respectively; in June and July, his OPS dipped to .757 and .744, respectively. His first two months were BABIP fueled with a lot of power (.376 BABIP, .190 ISO) while his last two months have seen both numbers drop (.354 BABIP, .119 ISO). Pence's overall ISO has declined every season since he broke into the majors in 2007.
Despite the pessimistic trends, you can safely bet money on Pence being a three- to four-win player in 2011-12, barring injury. Brown would need to catch fire in August and September to get to even one win above replacement. Brown's production in 2012 is very much up in the air, but there is no doubt his ceiling is much higher than Pence's. But is it worth adding an additional 1-2 regular season wins in the final two months and potentially better 2011 postseason production at the cost of a 23-year-old potential superstar? Acquiring Pence at the cost of Brown is a high-risk, low-reward move for the Phillies, exactly the type of move they have abstained from making over the last few years.
This is without even getting into the financial aspect of the situation. Pence will be expensive ($6.9 million this year, with two arbitration-eligible years left where he will receive consecutive raises), whereas Brown will receive the major league minimum or close to it for the next few years. Peter Hjort expertly illustrated the financial aspect of acquiring Pence on Twitter earlier today:
Hunter Pence has averaged +3.4 fWAR/600 PA's over the past 4 years. He'll be 29 in 2012 and 30 in 2013. Your expectation is 6 wins in 12-13.
That's a $30 million asset. Pence is going to make $10-$11 million in 2012, $14-$15 million in 2013; so ~$25 million salary.
Nobody is giving up two top prospects for a $30 million asset with a $25 million mortgage. Or, a $5 million net asset.
By this argument, even if Brown is only two-thirds the player Pence is (or 4 WAR), at $4.5 million per WAR, Brown would be worth $18 million while costing under $1 million, a net gain above $17 million.
No matter which way you look at it, giving up Brown for Pence just doesn't make a whole lot of sense, even if you have a pessimistic view of Brown. The Phillies' best bet is to stand pat with the outfield they have now, or try to get their players without giving up Brown, just as they've done in previous years when it came to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt.