Ed Wade: A Look Back, and Forward

CHRIS PUMMER: When you consider that Astros GM Ed Wade has in no way really distinguished himself from his peers among baseball executives, it maybe seemed like the contract extension he received last week came out of left field.

But Wade is probably the right man at the right time for Houston. And as long as his notorious fetish for overpaid middle relievers doesn’t destroy the organization in the meantime, he’ll be a capable placeholder until Houston owner Drayton McLane gives the go-ahead for a real rebuilding project.

The thing is, as bad as the Astros are now, and are likely to be the next few seasons, it probably doesn’t make enough financial sense to flush the current core and embark on what will surely be a long rehab. And it will be long based on the present state of the organization’s farm system.

The Astros are saddled with huge payroll commitments to Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman. While that trio isn’t really good enough to make Houston a great team with the right mix of young players (Hunter Pence, Michael Bourne) and veteran additions, they’re good enough to help the Astros make a run at 88 wins this year and next.

In the NL Central, that could be enough to win the division either year. Especially if the Cubs collapse under the weight of their poor contracts; the Brewers are forced to deal Prince Fielder; the Cardinals lack the flexibility to cover for contingencies after doling out big dollars for Matt Holliday; the Pirates continue being the Pirates; or the Reds fail at the same shell game Wade is trying to win.

If you think that sounds like Houston needs a lot of happen to be contenders, well, that’s why I called it a shell game.

The Astros play in a decent-sized market and are still drawing in the middle of the pack of NL teams in terms of attendance, despite putting a largely uninspiring product on the field since their surprise World Series appearance in 2005 — maybe longer. Pulling the plug on even the faint hope of contention for a half decade would probably lead to a severe hit to the team’s pocketbook.

That would also assume the decision to rebuild is within Wade’s or McLane’s hands. As it happens, Lee, Berkman and Oswalt all have no-trade clauses, so even if the Astros could unload any of those contracts without eating a big piece of it, they remain subject to the whims of those three players.

Maybe that changes this summer. Perhaps Oswalt decides he wants to play for a winner before he retires, so waives his no-trade rights. Without him, it’s hard to believe you can build around only Lee, Berkman and Pence, so the Astros make the reasonable decision not to pick up Berkman’s option for 2011.

That would leave only Lee’s bloated contract on the books beyond this season. At $18.5 million per season, that’s still a handicap for a team determined to keep its payroll under $100 million, but wouldn’t leave the Astros in the completely inflexible position they’re in now.

But unless some contender searching for pitching this summer is willing to take on Oswalt’s contract, and the righty accepts a trade, then 2011 will probably be a repeat of this year, where the Astros try valiantly to win north of 80 games.

That seems to be Wade’s specialty as that’s about where most of the Phillies teams he built from 1999-2005 finished.

To merit employment beyond his current contract, Wade will have to prove he can excel at something else. Be it finding good free agent values (which doesn’t look likely) or rebuilding a farm system, either under his lead or by delegating the task to the right subordinate like he did with Mike Arbuckle in Philadelphia.

When that day arrives, it might not even be McLane making the call. The Astros owner is willing to listen to offers to sell the team, even if he’s not aggressively looking for a buyer.

In the meantime, the decision to keep Wade on seems pretty uninspiring. But it’s maybe the most sensible decision one can imagine McLane making.

DAN SZYMBORSKI: In today’s game, with the general quality of general managers being much higher than 10-15 years ago, Ed Wade is out of place.  The Randy Smiths, Syd Thrifts, Chuck LaMars, and Allard Bairds of the world have generally been relegated to lesser advisory positions.  Unless, of course we’re talking about teams run by former Wal-Mart CEOs.

Ed Wade’s probably not the worst evaluator of baseball ability in the world, but he’s rather uninspiring and one of the more unimaginative executives around.  That’s simply not going to cut it, even in the NL Central.  Jim Hendry of the Cubs is similarly uninspiring, but he’s had a more generous payroll to paper over his bad ideas.  Wade was the GM in Philadelphia, but the biggest engine providing players for the team was the scouting/drafting tandem of Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever, not the moves Wade made on the major league level.  Like the Dodgers, the Phillies have a very independent minor league operation, similar to the fiefdom of Logan White in Los Angeles.  This has been an organizational feature in Philadelphia since Bill Giles’s group bought the Phils from the Carpenters.’

The temptation in Houston is to go with what they have, try to eke out an 80-win season and hope to get lucky.  That won’t keep attendance up long-term.  This was the plan in Baltimore, to try to build teams with familiar faces that might finish .500 and hope to rake in profits.  It won’t work, it’ll simply make the eventual teardown even more extreme than it currently has to be.  You can’t fool fans for that long – win 80 games a year in an easy division and Houston fans will be quickly become more concerned with Texans than the Astros.  The Astros are in one of the easier divisions in baseball and there’s no reason to think, with a creative general manager with a vision for the future, they could rebuild in a few years.  Just look how quickly Jack Zduriencik has repaired the damage that Bill Bavasi caused.  There’s no reason to think Ed Wade is that GM.

CHRIS NEEDHAM: They say the measure of a man is what’s in his Wikipedia page. Sure, I don’t really know who “they” is, and if you grill me on it too much, I’m going to admit that I just made that up. But just go with it, please.

If so, consider Mr. Ed Wade. I assume that’s short for Edward, but Wikipedia is murky on it. So Ed it is. Eddie has had a long, successful career in professional baseball as General Manager of two Major League franchises. And so, here is the second sentence of his Wikipedia bio: “Ed is the father of Erin Wade, 24, the personal assistant to Villanova Men’s Basketball Coach Jay Wright.”

What’s a dude gotta do to get some respect? It’s the chin, isn’t it? Wade has no chin. It’s awfully hard to respect a man with no chin.

Ed’s a worthy punching bag. Dan’s point about him being a relic of when GMs were selected for their ability to schmooze and down beverages with their chums, and not for their business acumen, is 100% accurate. But America needs an Ed Wade. America needs mediocrities. America needs people who plug away at their jobs neither doing great nor terribly — people who are constrained by their terrible bosses making terrible decisions, which directly affect one’s ability to do their job with anything but, well, mediocrity.

It’s easy to rip on Eddie. There is that reliever fetish. It’s hard not to imagine there being a shoebox in his closet full of 3/4 of the world’s supply of Mike Fetters baseball cards, but that aside, is he truly terrible?

His tenure with the Phillies wasn’t perfect, but he clearly had the occasional eye for talent; he just didn’t have the ability to really round the individual parts into a coherent whole.

He had a hand in Pat Burrell and Chase Utley. He picked up Cole Hamels. And he drafted Ryan Howard (never mind that he would ultimately block him with the Jim Thome signing, leading to what must’ve been a beautiful site: Ryan Howard trying to play the outfield in the minors.)

Those were all core players on back-to-back pennant winners. And while we can sneer at David Bell, that core of players stands up with any core in baseball. And that’s our ol’ Eddie.

Sure, he hasn’t distinguished himself with the Astros, but he’s working for Drayton McLane, which is a bit like working for your crazy, half-senile, penny-pinching, favorites-playing Uncle. Good luck with that.

So the best defense of Ed is this: he doesn’t completely suck. Just mostly.

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