The SF Giants are in the death throes of an utterly abysmal follow-up to their 2012 World Championship. With 81 losses already, they will finish below .500 unless they win out, and have long since been eliminated from the NL West race by the resurgent Dodgers. Much of the talk, rightly, focuses on 2014 and beyond, and one of the main points of conversation has been Hunter Pence, the emotional leader of last year’s championship run.
Hunter Pence, set to hit free agency right after this year’s World Series, is posting a career year, having posted a 295/345/499 slash line along with 25 HRs and 21 SBs. Among OF, Pence’s 5.3 fWAR and wRC+ of 139 both rank 6th. Aside from a slight uptick in ISO and the additional steals, Pence’s swing and contact rates and other peripherals are consistent with who he has been since entering the league – solidly above average hitter, sometimes indifferent fielder, good player but not superstar.
What makes Pence’s case somewhat interesting is the situation he finds himself in. The underachieving Giants received another all-star caliber season from their young backstop (and reigning NL MVP) Buster Posey, while Brandon Belt has begun to realize some of his vaunted upside – but Pence has played every game this season, leads the team in WAR and, as mentioned above, played an integral part in last year’s magical run to the title. Further, though we need to list them in great detail, SF has a long history of overpaying veterans (Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, Edgar Renteria, Aubrey Huff, Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, Juan Uribe to name just a few).
So what does Pence deserve? Clearly, his 2013 season is worth of a qualifying offer (expected to come in right around $14M), which Pence will undoubtedly decline – and the bidding will begin. Fortunately, we have a very recent and direct comp: Nick Swisher,who signed a 4 year/$56M contract with Cleveland this past winter.
Here are the numbers leading up to their free agency – for Swisher, 2010-2012 and for Pence, 2011 through today:
As players, Swisher and Pence are nearly perfect substitutes – Swisher gets on base a bit more, while Pence makes more contact and does a bit more damage on the bases. By wRC+ and WAR, their value is nearly the same over 3+ seasons. To be fair, Swisher signed his free agent contract as a player entering his age-32 season, while Pence will explore options this winter entering his age-31 season. Each year we see inflation in the price per win on the free agent market, so the age difference and inflation could mean Pence sees a bump in value; on the other hand, Swisher has shown himself a better, and more flexible, defensive player, which could mitigate some or all of that advantage.
Ultimately, however, there is little reason to believe Pence will get a contract much different from Swisher – so we can expect to see him somewhere in the 4/$56M range – perhaps if we take into account his age advantage, a team can talk itself into 5/$75M. Beyond this, however, there is little to talk about. Pence’s skills and weaknesses are well known and the market is established – anything below 4/$60 would be a bargain, and I probably would be reluctant to tack on the 5th year, though some teams may. What will be interesting, however, will be whether a team bereft of major league hitting talent (SF) will venture forth into the $20M/year world in the vain hopes that Pence can solve their power outages in the OF.