What if Giants never acquired Hunter Pence at 2012 MLB trade deadline?


In retrospect, it should come as no surprise that Hunter Pence has become such a memorable Giant. After all, his arrival at Oracle Park was unlike just about anything the franchise had seen before. 

Pence was acquired on deadline day in 2012 and landed at SFO in the seventh inning of a 4-1 win over the Mets. He was greeted outside the left field gate by Lou Seal and TV cameras followed as he walked through a hallway underneath the stands and into the home clubhouse. As Tim Lincecum talked about beating Matt Harvey, Pence showed up two lockers away. The two shook hands over a sea of reporters. Pence, still wearing jeans and a button-down, then went out to the dugout for a TV interview. It was later revealed that he paid his own way from Philadelphia because he was so eager to get to his new team. 

The rest, of course, is history. Pence's bug-eyed speeches became a staple of that 2012 title run. He signed a massive five-year extension in 2013 and the Giants won another title a year later. He had an emotional sendoff in 2018 but returned this spring, quickly reclaiming his place as one of the more popular Giants.

That trade has worked out remarkably well for the Giants, but across the country, it's a much different feeling. The Pence deal was a disaster for a Phillies organization that hasn't had a winning season since.

NBC Sports Philadelphia recently looked back at that deal, asking why the Phillies felt the need to make it. We'll look at a similar question here. 

What if the Giants didn't make the Hunter Pence deal?

The Giants had not entered that second half in 2012 thinking they had to get a big outfield bat for the heart of the lineup. Melky Cabrera had not been suspended yet, and he was one of the best players in the National League. Newcomers Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco were revelations. Buster Posey was in the midst of an MVP season and Pablo Sandoval was having an All-Star year. The lineup was actually in pretty good shape.

But then it all started to unravel.

Sandoval strained his hamstring a week before the deadline and went on the disabled list. The rival Dodgers came to town on July 27 and swept a weekend series, twice shutting the Giants out. They had traded for Hanley Ramirez and on deadline day they added Shane Victorino, Pence's teammate in Philadelphia. 

Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans sprung into action. They had tried to pry Pence away from the Astros a year earlier but found Carlos Beltran was easier to acquire. Pence had gone to the Phillies in a blockbuster, but at the 2012 deadline, the Giants finally got him, sending over catcher Tommy Joseph, outfielder Nate Schierholtz and right-hander Seth Rosin. 

"In some ways, this is a reaction," Sabean said that day. "We knew (the Dodgers) were going to be extremely active and you don't want them to outdistance you. The three games against the Dodgers weren't pretty and we kind of took that personally. We were hoping we could infuse something from the outside like they did."

The Giants led the Dodgers by one game on deadline day. They lost Pence's first two games but then won five of six on the road, righting the ship. They went 38-21 the rest of the way, winning the NL West by eight games.

When you look at Pence's production the rest of that year -- .671 OPS, seven homers -- it's easy to make the argument they would have won the West regardless. But it's not that simple.

On the day Cabrera was suspended, the Giants actually trailed the Dodgers in the standings. A clubhouse is a delicate ecosystem, and it's possible that without Pence's presence, that whole season would have collapsed. Instead, the Giants took on a defiant tone and took off. Pence was one of the players who spoke to the media that day, even though he had only been on the team two weeks.

Pence's greatest contribution that season came in the playoffs, when his fiery speech before Game 5 of the NLDS helped motivate a club that had fallen behind 2-0 to the Reds. His pre-game huddles became a hallmark of that championship run. 

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Perhaps we give too much credit to chemistry at times, but there was so little margin for error that postseason that it's easy to see how every small contribution added up. 

Pence hit 27 homers the next year and 20 in 2014, when he finished 11th in the MVP balloting for a team that took a Wild Card spot all the way to another parade. That 2014 World Series is remembered for Madison Bumgarner, which means people forget Pence went 12-for-30 with five RBI and a 1.167 OPS against the Royals. He was in many ways the heart of that team, and he started every game of that season. 

The Giants weren't close on a Plan B at the 2012 deadline, so there's no "what if" outfielder to compare Pence to. But looking back, it's not hard to see how they could have missed out on a title or two had they missed out on Pence. 

Perhaps the best argument for that case comes from the men who acquired him. The previous regime could have -- probably should have -- traded Pence for prospects in 2013, but they held on and instead extended him, insisting that he would be a crucial piece in another title run. 

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They were right, and they got the bonus of having Pence impact a new generation of Giants. That part of his legacy is so clear that when Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris put together the first team of the Gabe Kapler Era, they capped their offseason with a dramatic move. 

They signed Hunter Pence. 

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