30 July 2010
Baseball writers, particularly the sabermetrically inclined, enjoy lampooning the decisions and behaviors of Astros GM Ed Wade. His big league personnel decisions often merit that mockery. Deciding to sign Pedro Feliz and Brandon Lyon this past offseason stands tall as confirmation that Wade is a buffoon at best, bungling another baseball team before our very eyes. But like most accepted, conventional wisdom, that animating theory goes unchallenged all too often. What if Wade actually has a sound strategy to revitalize his organization and has only just begun to implement the elements of that strategy?
The prism through which Wade will be judged, fairly or not, is this trading deadline. He has veterans to shop. His team is performing poorly, prevented by the Pirates from dwelling in the dankest recess of the NL Central cellar. With Roy Oswalt out the door already, he still has Lance Berkman to deal, and if he really wanted to blow up his squad and rebuild with younger talents he could offer Hunter Pence, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers as well. Then there is Carlos Lee, who will retire an Astro because his contract is almost entirely untradeable. Before considering what they are worth, let's examine the Oswalt deal.
Writers critical of Wade have ripped the return for Oswalt as inadequate, worse than what Arizona got for Dan Haren and in short a big favor to Ruben Amaro Jr. But Wade replaced Oswalt with J.A. Happ and gets four years of team control of a lefty starter who will at least eat innings at the back of the rotation. While Happ cannot boast the pedigree and experience of Oswalt, as measured by Baseball Prospectus' WARP metric, he had a better season in 2009 (4.6 vs. 2.9 for Oswalt) FanGraph's WAR measure was less kind to Happ, leaving much room for conjecture on the value of his breakout season..
For the sake of argument, let us presume that Oswalt maintains his 2010 quality of play for the duration of this season and through next season. He would provide 2 WARP in 2010 and 6 WARP in 2011. Philadelphia is on the hook for $13 million of the $24 million owed to Oswalt. At $1.625 million per WARP, Oswalt is quite a bargain. Let us further stipulate that the cost of Happ includes the $11 million sent to the Phillies in the trade, to more accurately reflect the financial cost of his performance. Should Happ return to his 2010 level for the balance of this year and next - admittedly a big if - he would provide 1.5 WARP in 2010 and 4.5 WARP in 2011. At $11.65 million (the money sent to Philadelphia, plus the balance of his $470,000 salary for 2010 and a similar renewal for 2011. Happ will not be eligible for arbitration until after the 2011 season) his $1.942 million per WARP is still a bargain, though not as good as Oswalt. Because Houston also has Happ for three arbitration eligible season and therefore cost controlled seasons, Happ alone would be worth Oswalt and cash. Whatever contributions Houston gets from Brett Wallace and Jonathan Villar go straight to the bottom line of their return on the deal.
You protest, that's not realistic. Happ will certainly get level out at a lower performance level in 2010 or 2011. He might. But Oswalt maintaining his 2010 quality of play for the next 8-10 months of baseball (2-3 months in 2010 and 6-7 months in 2011) requires a leap of faith on the same scale. Happ's inexperience makes it easier to expect a return to reality. But Oswalt's age makes injury or age-related decline certain. The only variable is the rate of speed at which it manifests itself. Happ is in his theoretical prime at age 27. Despite the protestations of writers who are more attached to Oswalt's name than his value, this was not a bad deal for Houston at all. This is a controversial statement, so I'll re-phrase it foe emphasis. Ed Wade made a very shrewd trade leveraging a known and overvalued asset for an undervalued unknown one and got his trading partner to throw in two lottery ticket type players, one of whom he spun for a direct replacement for his soon to be departed first baseman.
Berkman may be gone by the four pm Saturday trading deadline. With just under seven million dollars guanteed to him between the balance of his 2010 salary and his $2 million 2011 option buyout, the money and committment are not going to frighten away a contending club. A team fighting for its postseason life might just value Berkman's production enough to pay that premium for his services down the stretch. He's been worth a little more than a win since coming off the DL on April 20th. Figuring an additional win for the stretch run is reasonable.
What would Berkman be worth to Tampa Bay or New York who both have considered the 1B/DH prototype of Adam Dunn as the deadline approaches? Tampa could undertake the $7 million expense to have a better chance at postseason success. Tampa has a deep pool of pitching prospects to go with a young, talented major league staff. While Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis are unlikely returns,, a player excelling at a lower level like Alexander Colome, Matt Moore or Nick Barnese have talent enough to pair with Jordan Lyles at the front of Houston's revitalized rotation in 2013. If Houston contributed cash to underwrite Berkman the better the prospect the Rays would send in return. Perhaps paying the freight in full would free Davis. Berkman could also be dealt during the waiver trading period next month.
The idea of dealing Pence was once tantamount to treason in Houston. But Pence's 2010 season leaves much to be desired in a corner outfielder. A contender with a need for outfield help might find Pence an attractive commodity in that he is expected to bounce back to his established level of performance and at age 27, he's still in his peak years. If Houston is truly going to rebuild and blow up their team, Pence needs to be shopped. With Corey Hart off the market and David DeJesus injured, he instantly becomes the best available outfielder. Considering he's arbitration eligible for the next three seasons, his cost will be reasonable. He would fetch the highest premium of any of Houston's players. Pence would not clear waivers. It's unlikely he gets dealt, but he should be.
Myers has revived his career in Houston. Wade was ridiculed when he signed Myers this offseason. He'll never have more value, but even then, with the baggage of his past bad acts, including domestic assault and occasional temper outbursts, he's unlikely to fetch a premium return. Myers owes Wade for the opportunity to prove himself, and is therefore almost certain to be retained. But Wade should listen and not declare him untouchable. No veteran player should be untouchable on his team.
Wade's greatest success is building farm systems. While Phillies GM, he drafted and began the development of the core of talent that propelled the club to their World Series victory in 2008. That core included Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard and Myers. He also signed Carlos Carrasco as an international free agent and drafted Lou Marson who were part of Cleveland's haul for Cliff Lee. Since joining the Astros he's drafted Jason Castro, Jio Mier, Jordan Lyles, Delino Deshields Jr., Mike Foltynewicz, Jay Austin and Tanner Bushue, who form the backbone of their young core of talent. The high impact players he's accumulating in the form of high school players with high upsides and international free agents suggest that Houston's woes will not last long. Plenty of these players are of the boom or bust variety. Supplementing them with more middle of the road talents like Happ and Wallace help to fill out a future roster that will again contend.
It's easy, and fun, to mock Ed Wade. But his track record suggests those jibes are shortsighted and that he has a good grasp on the long view. We may not see the value he took from the very short-sighted Ruben Amaro Jr., whose decision to ship out Cliff Lee last off-season effectively cost him J.A. Happ during his cost controlled seasons. We'll applaud Amaro because we think he got the best of the deal. And he did, for 2010. Wade did better for 2013. Houston never had a chance in 2010. Wade knew it and acquired pieces for when his team will next be a serious contender. By maximizing talent for their next real window of contention both GMs did well. I maintain Wade did better, but that's my default. I prefer taking the long view.
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