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Time To Grade Ed Wade in 2010

Ed Wade is a polarizing figure among baseball general managers. At least that seems to be the reaction of some members of the national media and baseball blogosphere.  In some ways this is surprising.  Wade isn't one of those GMs who makes outrageous quotes.  He isn't one of those GMs who publicly castigates his players.  For the most part, Ed Wade's views about running a baseball team appear to be fairly conventional.  Wade's two highest profile hirings, Bobby Heck and Brad Mills, are generally regarded as good picks.

In some ways, I think the criticism of Wade arises because some view him as a symbol of traditionalists in the scouts vs. stats debate.  In reality, all teams combine scouting and statistics in their evaluation.  The differences lie in a matter of degree as to how much each front office weighs those methods.  Wade openly states his preference for scouting opinions. As someone who likes quantitative analysis in baseball, I might prefer a different balance. 

However, part of the ingenious nature of baseball is that multiple paths exist for developing successful teams.  Wade also appears to put a high priority on what baseball people call "player makeup," which pertains to subjective matters like personality, work habits, and a player's relationship in the clubhouse. No one can deny that makeup is a relevant factor in building a team, and all teams' front offices take these subjective evaluations into account--but because the evaluations are subjective, they are rightfully fair game for second guessing.  In Wade's case, his desire for veteran role models, like Pedro Feliz, Geoff Blum, and Brian Moehler, leads to signings which don't seem to be justified purely on performance.  I won't disagree with criticisms that he may place too much emphasis on this aspect of building a team; but, to be fair, this year's team seemed to have a good personality to deal with adversity.

One way to cut through the chaff is to grade Mr. Wade on the results of his specific decisions.  And that's what I will attempt to do.  Let's acknowledge the limitations: it's too early to grade some of the player acquistions in a definitive way because the future will tell us how they really turned out; as Stephen reminded us around mid-season, such evaluations are subject to sample size luck;  and we can't always know all of the constraints, from budgetary to owner's orders, which affect the decisions.  I have omitted returning free agents (Blum, Moehler, Michaels), but note that I would have given a C+ for those decisions as a group.

Free Agent Signings

Brett Myers A+

Even Wade's worst critics have to concede that Myers turned out to be an excellent free agent signing.  I would like to think that I was prescient, before spring training began, in concluding that Myers would be a good candidate to regain his form this season.  However, I was assuming that he could produce a No.3 starter performance, not the performance of a top of the rotation pitcher.  Brett Myers may well be the best free agent signing of 2010 by any team.  Myers' ERA was ranked 13th among starters in the NL.  He was in the top 20 for FIP and x-FIP.  But what really showed him to be a workhouse was the 223 innings (ranked 4th in the NL) he carried.  His remarkable string of 6+ innings starts, broken in the last game of the season, set an Astros' record and saved the bullpen from untold damage.  Under Fangraphs' version of WAR, Myers was 4.1 Wins Above Replacement, resulting in a $13 million surplus above his $3.1 million salary. The Baseball-Reference version shows Myers with 4.7 WAR, which would produce even greater surplus value.

Since I tried to concentrate on 2010, I haven't addressed the contract extension which Myers signed with the Astros after mid-season.  At the time, Stephen said the deal was fine, neither great nor terrible.  I tend to agree.  But, at this point, it's too early to grade the contract extension, and I haven't included it in the grade above.

Brandon Lyon A-

My grade for this signing may be surprising, considering the flak that Wade took over it.  Remember Dave Cameron calling Lyon the worst signing of the winter?  And he wasn't the only one--bloggers all over the web called it the worst free agent signing of the year.  Before the season started, criticism of the Lyon signing took on a life of its own, with bloggers and writers beating the subject like a pinata.  But I never understood the fervor.  I can understand if someone believed that Lyon was overpaid by a couple of million dollars.  But signing a generic reliever (to use Cameron's words) is the worst signing of the year?  This isn't like paying Francisco Cordero (Reds) or K-Rod (Mets) $12 million per year.

In 2010, Ed Wade got everything he wanted from Brandon Lyon, and then some. The grade above perhaps is a conditional one, since Lyon has two more years left on his contract; three years from now, perhaps we have a different grade.  However, at this point what we know is how Lyon performed in 2010.  And I don't see any obvious reason why he can't perform the same way next year.  Lyon pitched 77 innings with a 3.16 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 20 saves.  If nothing else, Lyon's contract saves Wade from the need to search for a closer next year.

I'm not comfortable with the use of WAR for relief pitchers, but it's what critics of the signing used to evaluate Wade's signing.  Baseball Reference's WAR values Lyon at 1.9 wins above replacement, which would produce around $4 million of surplus value in 2010.  Fangraph's valuation for Lyon is only 1.0 WAR, which means that his value is equivalent to his 2010 salary.  (If you want a lengthy discussion why Fangraphs and Baseball References produce divergent WAR for pitchers, read here and here.)

However, I think that constructing a team requires more than adding up WAR.  Lyon was the glue to this season's bullpen.  He was versatile enough that he could work either the 8th or 9th inning.  After the losses of Gervacio and Arias to injury, Chris Sampson's performance falling off a cliff, and Fulchino's disappointing second season, Lyon was pretty much indispensible.  The bullpen would have been a train wreck without Lyon.  Fangraphs has a new stat called, "shutdown innings," which some view as preferable to "saves."  Lyon had 35 shutdown innings, which is third in the NL, behind only Carlos Marmol and Brian Wilson.

Lyon and Lindstrom were the first pair of relievers to save 20 or more games on the same team since 1992.  That is probably no more than an interesting historical artifact, as statistics go.  However, I think it shows that Wade correctly surmised that Lindstrom would be a worthwhile risk at closer, so long as Lyon is available as the safety net. 

Pedro Feliz D+

Clearly this free agent signing didn't work out well.  At the time, I didn't think it was a terrible idea.  Feliz likely wouldn't provide more than minimal offense, but potentially could provide defensive value at third base.  As it turned out, Feliz's offense appears to have fallen off a very high, very jagged cliff.  A .600+ OPS seemed out of reach.  And, unfortunately, Feliz's defense to begin the season was rusty, to put it charitably.  I suspect that the poor defense was more like a sample size issue; Feliz's defense rebounded from -7 in Houston to +4 during his short stint in St. Louis, according to Baseball-Reference.

Some might criticize Wade for a signing which blocked Chris Johnson from starting at third earlier in the season.  I'm not in that camp.  Johnson's minor league record left something to be desired, and I think CJ's return to AAA early in the 2010 season helped him, setting up his great second half of the season.  In any event, Feliz was moved aside as the primary starter at third when Johnson proved he was ready.

Normally, I would grade this signing as a F.  But I give Wade credit for finding a trading partner who would not only take Feliz, but actually gave up something worthwhile in return.  David Carpenter, a catcher converted to minor league closer, is too old to be a prospect, but he is an interesting arm who posted good numbers in Lancaster (as well as getting the win for Lancaster in an improbable no hitter by multiple pitchers).  Carpenter is far from a sure thing to make the majors someday, but he has a chance to be a late inning reliever.  Given the trade to St. Louis, I increased the grade on this signing from F to D+.

Cory Sullivan D+

Sullivan was brought in as a non-roster invite to spring training and subsequently won the No. 5 outfielder spot on opening day.  Sullivan was a serviceable defensive outfielder, but his offense was bad.  Even if it is tough to come off the bench, a .188 batting average and .492 OPS isn't going to cut it.  And cut he was--on June 23.  Eventually his position was taken by Jason Bourgeois--and it's worth noting that Bourgeois could have been given the position from the beginning of the season.  The only reason this isn't a worse grade is that Sullivan didn't cost much and, therefore, could be designated for assignment without much loss.


Matt Lindstrom  B

Midway through the season, this trade would have garnered a higher grade.  With a 2.80 ERA and 21 saves in the first half of the season, Lindstrom looked like a steal.  Lindstrom's year took a turn for the worse, with a back injury and possible fatigue leading to a 7.50 ERA and only two saves in the second half.  Lindstrom's final numbers (4.10 ERA and 3.81 FIP) aren't bad, but they aren't great either.  On the positive side, the Astros have a pitcher with closer stuff under team control for the near future.  However, unless the Astros are convinced that he can rebound next year, I'm not sure if they will pay him what he might be due as a second year arbitration player.  I am guessing he will be back, given his potential as a late inning reliever.  The Astros didn't give up much for Lindstrom; so this trade is still a good one.

Angel Sanchez  B+

The Astros traded Kevin Cash to the Red Sox for Angel Sanchez.  Sanchez accumulated about 500 innings of playing time for Houston over approximately half a season.  Sanchez's .664 OPS is below league average for shortstops, but for Astros' fans who were used to seeing an OPS of .500 from the shortstop in 2010, Sanchez seemed like a godsend.  Given Cash's poor performance for the Astros, getting any player of value in exchange seemed amazing.  If anything, the fact that this trade helped both the Red Sox and Astros proves one thing: replacement level players are valuable if the team has a need for them.  Going forward, Sanchez probably is best suited as a utility infielder.  However, I give Wade good marks on this trade both for what he gave up (Cash) and the desperate need that Sanchez filled at the time.

Oswalt Trade  B-

Earlier in the season, before Roy Oswalt was traded, we debated whether this trade would become the litmus test for grading Ed Wade.  Unless Wade had either turned this trade into a steal or a disaster, I don't think it is a litmus test.  And it was neither of those outcomes.  Based on 2010 results, alone, this trade seems lopsided in favor of Philly.  Oswalt has a 1.82 ERA for the Phillies, and helped create a turnabout for that team which moved them from middle of the pack to class of the National League.  However, in trades of this type, the overall winner/loser isn't known for several years.  Although I wasn't as sold on Brett Wallace as some were, I give Wade credit for finding a third team which could give the Astros what the Phillies couldn't (or wouldn't), a legitimate hitting prospect. 

That said, I find the return on this trade to be slightly disappointing.  Jonathon Villar is a boom-or-bust type prospect.  Brett Wallace has started his major league career in less than impressive fashion, although it is too early to make any conclusions.  J.A. Happ's 3.75 ERA and 4.3 FIP for the Astros is nicely done, but don't expect him to be an ace to replace Oswalt in the rotation  My evaluation of Happ has improved based on his work with the Astros.  I think he profiles as a No. 3 starter, rather than a No. 5, my original reaction.

I'm not sure we can blame Wade for the disappointing return though.  He faced tough obstacles to make this trade.  Oswalt ruled out a number of teams who might have given the Astros a higher exchange.  Oswalt or his agent hinted at additional demands, perhaps to angle the trade in the direction he wanted to go.  The Rangers' ongoing bankruptcy saga in June probably hurt the trade possibilities.  The Rangers might have been the more favorable trading partner, but the extended bankruptcy likely tilted the Rangers' decision toward a lower monetary cost trade like Cliff Lee.

I rate the trade as acceptable, though not outstanding.  The final grade will depend on what Wallace, Happ, and Villar do in the future.

Berkman Trade  B+

The Lance Berkman trade undoubtedly was emotionally difficult for the Astros and their owner.  However, after Roy Oswalt had been traded, the logic for making this trade was unassailable.  Berkman's dwindling offense over the course of 2010, his age and salary, and the general decline in the market for aging sluggers at 1st base all indicated that the likely trading return would be low.  As a comparison, Derrek Lee was traded to the Braves for three less than noteworthy minor leaguers.  In return for Berkman, the Astros received Jimmy Paredes, a 21 year old middle infielder, and 25 year old reliever Mark Melancon.  Paredes isn't a prime prospect, but he increases the number of young guys who might have a chance in the organization.  More importantly, Melancon has shown good potential as a major league relief pitcher for the Astros.  With a 3.12 ERA and 9.9 K/9, it's not a stretch to project Melancon as a late inning reliever next  year.  So far, Berkman's offense has continued to decline since joining the Yankees.  Berkman's OPS with the Astros in 2010 was .808 and it is .707 with the Yankees.  Houston appears to have received at least one useful contributor to the future Astros, and that makes this trade a winner, considering that Berkman's option likely would not have been picked up by the Astros anyway.

Waiver Pick Ups  A-

Nelson Figueroa, Jason Bourgeois, Anderson Hernandez, Matt Downs, and Enerio Del Rosario were waiver wire pick ups during either the off-season or during the season.  Considering that the acquisition of Figueroa, individually, should be given an A grade, the A- grade for Wade's overall work on waiver pick ups is deserved.  Admittedly waiver acquisitions are easier for lower level teams; but Wade should be given credit for his good use of the waiver wire.  Figueroa was a significant contributor to the rotation.  Bourgeois had his moments as a reserve outfielder.  And Downs and Hernandez likely will be in the spring training mix, vying for a utility infielder position.  Del Rosario's outings were bumpy, but that reminds me of Wilton Lopez who had similarly tough outings in 2009, but came back this year to bolster the bullpen.  Wade had waiver wire success in previous years, with Alberto Arias and Lopez as examples, leading to the conclusion that the success in 2010 was more than luck.


Ed Wade

Overall Grade:  B+

In mid-June, when Stephen posted his poll for Wade's mid-season grades, I probably would have graded Wade in the B- range.  Beyond the grades for the individual moves, above, I think we have to give credit to Wade for successfully changing the direction of this team.  That is my basis for upgrading Wade's grade in the second half of the season.  This had to be a challenging year for the front office--- a year which required continual adjustments.  I recall reading that Wade compared his work to changing the direction of a battleship in open seas.  As a matter of speculation, many fans credit Wade with changing Drayton McLane's attitude toward accepting a rebuilding of the team.  I don't know if it's true, but it makes sense.  Many of us doubted that Wade would be able to convince McLane to part with cash in order to make the Oswalt and Berkman trades. But it happened.  I would suggest that the tougher choices will arise in the upcoming winter.  But that's a story for another day.