A long look back

added 8/29/2008 by Scott Barzilla

Grading a general manager is a difficult thing. Most people are just happy to look at the numbers of those coming and going, but there really is a lot more involved in that. In my book, The State of Baseball Management, I took a look at the free agent signings and trades for the best and worst teams. Naturally, I set up some groundrules and those rules should apply here as we fill out the report card for Ed Wade.

Wait a minute. The calendar hasn't even hit September yet. I know many of you are screaming that at your computer screen. Grading a GM now may seem premature, but we can consider this the grade going into the final exam. Most schools have gone away from counting the final as a major part of a student's grade. So, most of the time, students end up with the same letter grade they did going into the exam. Similarly, the Astros will have to either roll over and die or really finish strong to change this grade.

The first rule of grading GMs is to look at the overall product and compare it to the past product. The Astros were a fourth place team last year with little hope of moving up. Now, they are a fourth place team that looks to win between 80 and 85 games. That stands as a five to ten game improvement. That part of the grade is simple, but the future does not look as bright. Most of the veterans are in their thirties and the farm system is bare. Some of that isn't Wade's fault, but he didn't exactly restock the farm system with deals.

I will give Wade an overall grade of B- because the club's future does not look bright. Normally, that would warrant a lesser grade, but we have to grade on a curve given the directives from his superiors. Wade cannot rebuild because Drayton McLane and Tal Smith won't let him. So, lowering the boom on Wade doesn't make a great deal of sense in that environment. From here, we can take a look at each individual deal. Our second and most important groundrule is to avoid hindsight. It is easy to look at Brad Lidge's numbers and question that trade. We have to look at the information available at the time.

The Astros trade Brad Lidge and Eric Bruntlett for Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary, and Michael Costanzo. This deal looks awful right now, but we have to remember the hindsight rule. One of the primary reasons for the hindsight rule is that we have no way of knowing whether Lidge would have produced those numbers here. In all likelihood, his success was predicated on a change of scenery. Michael Bourn also makes the deal look bad at the moment, but Geary has been a huge part of the bullpen. Also, Michael Costanzo was a key component of the Miguel Tejada trade. This trade grades out as a C pending Bourn's development or lacktherof.

The Astros trade Luke Scott, Costanzo, and half of their Round Rock pitching staff for Miguel Tejada. I can't think of a more complicated deal. On the one hand, Tejada has failed miserably to meet expectations at the plate. On the other hand, he has performed admirably with the glove and has been a key leader in the clubhouse. Then, Troy Patton (the best arm to go in the deal) went down with a season ending injury before he threw a pitch. As for the rest, Luke Scott has been Luke Scott. It's easy to look at an 800+ OPS and scratch your head.

Luke Scott remains the central piece in this trade. More than any other player, Scott represents a blind spot in the way the Astros do business. Scott doesn't hit for high average (excluding 2006), doesn't run or throw particularly well, and isn't a flashy fielder. Yet, every sabermetric number that rates offense and defensive performance showed him to be a plus player. So, the decision to trade Scott in the first place was dubious, but every projection system expected more out of Tejada. Sure, he hasn't been terrible at the plate (a .280+ average with some pop), but the club was expecting another player on the level of Lee.

The Astros trade Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and Juan Guitterez for Jose Valverde. This deal looked suspect in April and throughout much of the season. However, Valverde has poured it on of late and is staring at a 40+ save season. Given the available information at the time, it appeared that Lidge wasn't going to give the Astros that. Valverde had only done it for one season, but give credit to Wade for rolling a seven on this one. Burke has done nothing of note, Guitterez is stuck in AAA, and Qualls has been the usual flaky Qualls.

The evualation of this deal depends greatly on how one views closers. Unfortunately, this is an entire column by itself. Qualls' raw numbers have been superior, but they haven't come in the ninth inning. Some sabermetricians talk about "leverage" in terms of relief pitchers. Some outs are more valuable than others according to this theory. Naturally, others call BS on that and say and out is an out is an out. I fall in the middle on this one. I respect the work of Baseball Prospectus and other publications that use leverage, but also think too many fans and casual media see the ninth inning as universally more difficult.

The Astros trade Josh Anderson for Oscar Villareal. This is another problematic evaluation. Too many reflexively question this move based on Villareal's release. First, we have to remember our second rule. Before this year, Villareal had been a solid middle reliever. Secondly, Josh Anderson wasn't in our future and isn't in the Braves' future either. Yet, the decision to give Villareal a two-year contract was a dubious one. Even if he had performed well, there is very little reason to give a middle reliever a multi-year contract in this economic climate.

The Astros sign Kaz Matsui to a three year 16.5 million dollar deal. Evaluating multi-year contracts one year in is a foolish endeavor. The Matsui situation is mixed. The baseball community laughed in our face because he had never produced outside of the mile high air. It looks like the Astros are getting the last laugh in terms of production, but Matsui has been on the DL three times. That continues a career trend, so it can hardly be a surprise. The bright side is that Matsui's anal fizzures will remain one of the more entertaining injuries in franchise history.

The Astros trade slop for Randy Wolf and Latroy Hawkins. These deals were also complex in nature. On the one hand, the decision to add to this roster seemed delusional given our chances of advancing to the playoffs. Both have performed well (Hawkins better than Wolf) and the club is still out of reach. However, there appears to be a method to the madness. First, getting a little shot in the arm could bode well for the off-season. High priced free agents like greenbacks, but you don't see too many signing with the Royals or Pirates. Finishing above .500 could give the Astros a recruiting tool in the winter. One could easily see Ed Wade telling Ben Sheets that he could be the missing piece.

Giving these deals a grade based on that information alone would be unfair. It is plain to see that Hawkins and Wolf probably don't figure into the long-term plans. Yet, both are borderline Type B free agents. If the Astros offer them arbitration and they decline (or sign somewhere else) they will get second round picks for both players. Those second round picks would almost certainly be higher grade prospects than the players the Astros shipped out for Hawkins and Wolf. If neither player is classified as a Type B free agent then the Astros will have given up two marginal prospects for the chance to finish above .500. If anything, knowing this gives every Astros fan extra reason to root for Hawkins and Wolf.

Ed Wade was charged with making the Astros competitive in the short-term and rebuilding the farm system in the long-term. The Astros aren't competitive in the literal sense, but they are considerably better than a year ago. If the Central division had been the Comedy Central of the past then he would be seen in a different light. If the club manages to get a few compensation picks and if they sign most of their draft picks again next year then he will be well on his way to accomplishing the second part of that mandate.