At the end of the 2018 baseball season the San Francisco Giants granted outfielder Hunter Pence his free agency. It was the worst season of his career. He finished with a slash line of .226/.258/.332 with an OPS of .590 and just four home runs in 97 games. At age 35, the Giants realized he was on the downside of his career. Overall numbers typically trend downward when players hit their mid-30’s.
Pence, however, refused to believe his career was done. He decided to play winter ball in the Dominican League. His mission was to work on his mechanics and find his swing again in the hopes that some team would sign him.
Hunter Pence Returns Home
In February, Hunter Pence’s hometown Texas Rangers signed him to a team friendly one-year deal worth $2 million. He impressed manager Chris Woodward so much in spring training that he made the opening day roster as a fourth outfielder. He had successful at-bats in the role of pinch hitter and would start at designated hitter at times but Woodward had a hard time getting him into the lineup everyday.
Injuries to various players would soon force a lineup shuffle that meant more playing time for Pence that would pay off. He quickly became a fan favorite with his timely hitting in critical situations. The biggest hit was last week against the Pittsburgh Pirates when he had the day off. He came to bat as a pinch hitter with Texas down 6-2. With the bases loaded Pence hit a game-tying grand slam.
Following that game is was announced that center fielder Delino DeShields was being optioned to Triple-A Nashville. This makes Pence an everyday player rotating between the outfield and being the designated hitter.
In 26 games, Pence is hitting .316 with a .389 OBP and an OPS of 1.047. He’s also slugged seven home runs. Four more than his entire 2018 campaign. Compare that to his preseason ZIPS projection of .259/.311/.420 and a .731 OPS. Yes, it may be a small sample size but he is trending upwards which is rarely seen in a player his age, which he is now 36.
If he continues at this pace there is a really good chance that he could be the American League Comeback Player of the Year. That would be a fitting end to the season for a hometown kid who returned to Arlington to play for the team he grew up watching.
But there is also one other thing that could happen.
The Texas Rangers currently sit in last place, but are only seven-and-a-half games out of first place. If they can grind out some more wins, they could find themselves in a better position, but it’s hard to believe that they could take the division from the Houston Astros or even compete for a wild card spot.
If the Rangers do find themselves way out of contention by the trade deadline, then it’s very possible that Hunter Pence and pitcher Mike Minor could make for some appealing trade pieces. Hunter wouldn’t net a lot in return as he would be a rental player. Texas could probably get a low level prospect in return. Minor has one more year and is on a team friendly contract. Texas would get more for him in return or possibly even package both of them in a deal to a contender for a bigger haul.
The season is still young and the Rangers are still performing above expectations. For now they should embrace the comeback of Hunter Pence.
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