Hunter Pence, Hold or Fold?

CHRIS PUMMER: While the Astros are suffering through what might end up being their worst season ever, outfielder Hunter Pence is enjoying his finest.

Pence has his batting average over .300 for the first time since his spectacular rookie season. He’s hitting the ball with the same authority that’s helped him whack 50 extra-base hits each year of his career. And while some defensive metrics say his glove is off a little in right field, he’s generally been considered a good fielder in right after coming up as a centerfielder.

While Pence might be the kind of player a team is proud to draft and develop, keeping doesn’t make much sense for the Astros, who look to be a long way away from contending again. The only way Pence will be part of a Houston revival will be with a big contract extension that buys out not just the last of his arbitration eligibility, but several free agent years.

With his $6.9 million salary, Pence is a good deal for the Astros this season, especially with his batting average surge propelling his offense to greater heights. But would he remain a good deal at a higher, market-rate salary if his batting average on balls in play falls back to his career norms, which it likely will? And when he loses a step defensively?

I guess it comes down to what kind of contract Pence wants. If the Astros could extend him for something like three years and $30-36 million, maybe that’s a gamble Houston can take to keep a homegrown product stocked on their shelf. It is only money, and the Astros need to give fans something to be optimistic about.

That kind of deal might not be enough, though. Not considering how fast Pence’s salary has risen through arbitration, plus the money given out to other free agent outfielders recently. Pence and his agent might be content to wait until he reaches the open market, in which case the Astros might have no chance at retaining him at a reasonable price.

The Astros need to decide if a reasonable extension is a likelihood, and if not, need to find Pence a new team if the package of players is right.

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