It is easy to be down on the Astros right now. At 31-64, they are stating their case as the most embarrassing team in the history of Houston sports. Hoards of angry fans with torches and pitchforks are tramping down Crawford Street, intending to make the responsible people pay for the travesty that is the 2011 Houston Astros. The most common target, if one were to take a spot survey of callers into local sports radio programs, is General Manager Ed Wade.
A little history: in 2007, coming off of two disappointing years in which they predictably failed to return to the playoffs after their first ever World Series berth, the Houston Astros fired then-GM Tim Purpura and hired Ed Wade to right the ship. Rightly or wrongly, some circles credited Wade for overseeing the farm system rebuild that eventually led to the Phillies' success, though he was sent packing after eight years of playoff-less baseball. The hiring was seen as questionable by some people, who pointed out Wade's prior relation to team president Tal Smith.
The for-and-against cases judging Wade's tenure as Astros GM, with respect to managing player rosters in particular, are actually quite interesting. This article will present the viewpoint that Ed Wade is mostly a victim of circumstance, and that his presumed vision for the Astros has not had time to bear fruit. A future article will give the opposite case, that Wade has botched the job and made a bad situation worse.
A Situation Inherited
In 2007, the Astros boasted a payroll of $87,750,000, well within the top half in all of baseball. This included several large contracts backloaded to increase with coming years. To make matters worse, the farm clubs were so barren of talent that Baseball America ranked it among the worst in the majors. So on a failing club with no farm system, Wade faced immovable contracts, rising costs, and the expectation to trim payroll once it was clear the Astros could not buy their way into contention again.
- In 2006, GM Tim Purpura signed Carlos Lee to a 6-year, $100MM contract with full no-trade clause. Lee was well-known as an excellent hitter with a bad body and bottom-barrel defensive skills. In addition, the Lee contract was back-loaded, which payed him $11M in '07, $12M in '08, then $18.5M for each of the next four seasons. Meanwhile, Lee got noticeably heavier, his bat became noticeably slower, and his outfield defense worsened to an unplayable point. But what choice did Wade have but to instruct his managers to keep running the big guy out there?
- In 2006, Purpura signed 40-year old soft-tosser Woody Williams to a 2-year, $12.5M contract, essentially throwing money away at a bad starter obviously well past his sell-by date.
- In 2006, Purpura extended Roy Oswalt to a 5-year, $73M contract, also backloaded to increase from $13M in '07 to $14M in '09, to $15M in '10, to $16M in '11 and beyond. With a full no-trade clause and a player option for 2012. Incidentally, as part of the agreement to trade Oswalt to the Phillies in 2011, the Astros still have to pay $7M of his contract.
- In 2005, Purpura extended Lance Berkman with a 6-year, $85MM contract. Again, backloaded. After $10.5M in 2005, it jumped to $14.5M annually, until his $15M club option for 2011 kicked in. The Astros were required to pay $4M of his contract after trading him to the Yankees in 2010.
Back when Gerry Hunsicker was GM of the Astros, the team was widely considered to have one of the top--if not the top--farm systems in basball. A series of trades later (Randy Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Jason Jennings, etc), de-emphasis on scouting and player development by the GM's and the owner, too many Class-A and -B free-agent signings, and refusal to pay over-slot for draftees, and the Astros were cellar-dwellers to stay. Ask the Pirates, Royals, and Rays: building a farm system can take a decade. It can be ruined overnight.
- In 2005, Baseball America ranked the Astros #22 in organizational talent (farm system).
- In 2006, they were ranked #20.
- In 2007, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Astros #28 of 30.
- In 2007, Purpura signed enough free agents to lose his 1st and 2nd-round draft pick rights, then failed to sign his top two draftees, from the 3rd and 4th rounds.
Team owner Drayton McLane is in the process of selling the Astros to Houston busienssman Jim Crane. Two years ago, McLane attempted to sell the Astros to Crane before the deal fell through. For years, it is obvious that McLane has been trying to sell the Astros, and it is not a leap to consider that he would not want to heavily invest himself in the future of a franchise that he knew he would not be a part of.
During this time, McLane has gone on record refusing to allow "rebuilding", meaning that any trades of major players to acquire young talent could happen only after those major players were well past the prime of their careers (Oswalt, Berkman).
This meant that through the years of ownership instability, Wade has been expected to improve a club with inconsistent resources.
As shown above, Ed Wade was hamstrung from the beginning by an old-fashioned ownership philosophy about paying premium dollar for aging vetarans. The Astros have been financially inflexible during his tenure, weighed down by bad contracts from previous regimes, tied with the expectation to continually lower payroll. He had no young talent in the farm system to fall back on.
Positive Steps Made
Given the restrictions, Wade did what he could.
Reinvestment in the Farm System
- Wade hired Bobby Heck, the well-respected manager of scouting and player development who groomed such players as Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Yovani Gallardo during his tenure with the Brewers.
- Under Wade's direction, the Astros opened a new facility in the Dominican Republic to serve as a baseball academy, recruiting ground, and school for promising young Latin American baseball players.
- Wade reversed owner Drayton McLane's refusal to sign over-slot for draftees, signing well-regarded prospects Jordan Lyles, Jason Castro, Delino DeShields Jr, Mike Foltynewicz, J.D. Martinez, and Jiovanni Mier, in addition to the 2011 draft class.
- Wade refocused efforts to sign foreign free agents, including new Baseball Prospectus Top-50 prospect Jose Altuve, Ariel Ovando, and others. (EDIT: I just realized that Altuve was a Tim Purpura signing. Credit to Tim there. I still say that Wade's team needs the lion share of credit for his development and for pushing him when he excelled in A+ and AA this season.)
- Wade acquired prospects in trade to contribute to the depth of the farm system, including Jonathan Villar, Jimmy Paredes, and Mark Melancon, who currently serves as the Astros' closer.
Acquisition through Trade
- Wade acquired gold-glove winner and NL Steals leader Michael Bourn in trade for embattled closer Brad Lidge.
- Wade acquired current Astros 1B Brett Wallace, current Astros starter J.A. Happ, and more for Roy Oswalt, despite the prohibitive contract and no-trade clause.
- As noted, Wade acquired current Astros closer Mark Melancon (and more!) for a broken and listless Lance Berkman, despite the prohibitive contract and no-trade clause.
- Wade controversially acquired shortstop Miguel Tejada for Luke Scott and a bag of nothing. Say what one will, Tejada was one of the better offensive players for the Astros in 2009, with team-leading .313 batting average.
- Jeff Keppinger, traded from the Reds in 2009, has been one of the most invaluable Astros players since, at a very low cost.
- Randy Wolf was a good starter for the Astros as they made a late push in 2008.
- Clint Barmes, though no star, contributes adequately at shortstop, and only cost Wade a starting pitcher with control problems.
Creative Free-Agent Signings and Waiver Claims
Despite a shrinking budget and increasing obligation to pay rising contract costs, Wade managed to field a competitive team until 2011, when all of the above factors came to a head. Keep in mind, as unexciting as these players were, they were likely the best Wade could afford, given budget constraints.
- Brett Myers was signed to a one-year deal and had the best season of his career in 2010.
- Kaz Matsui performed admirably at 2B until repeated injuries brought his career in America to a messy end.
- Jason Michaels is a fine fourth outfielder
- Matt Down was claimed on waivers and led the majors in pinch-hit home runs for a time
- Nelson Figueroa was a cheap and excellent 5th starter in 2010
- Alberto Arias and others currently serve for the major league bullpen
- Doug Brocail had his best years as a member of the Astros at the end of his career, and is now the pitching coach for the major league team.
As shown, Ed Wade was put into an impossible position: an inflexible, shrinking budget in the midst of increasing costs, a league-worst farm system that held no grade-A talent for the future, an unstable ownership situation, and unreasonable expectations.
He planted the seeds for a farm system that is growing in grudging respectability, has managed to field a team that until 2011 was at least not an embarrassment, has managed the egos of disgruntled former stars, has managed an out-of-touch owner who aggressively resisted progress, and has managed to shrink the yearly budget, as instructed.
Given the situation, it is difficult to believe any other GM could have performed any better than Wade has. No GM has a spotless record, and Wade's resume as Astros GM has its share of blemishes, but as any employed person knows, being expected to do a job while being withheld the resources to do so is an impossible task.