The offseason is not even close to over, yet two general managers already stand out, albeit for vastly different reasons. Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has, in under two years, turned the Mariners from the punchline in a Bill Bavasi joke to a legitimate contender for the AL West. Meanwhile, Houston Astros GM Ed Wade keeps digging a deeper grave for his team.
These GMs are important because they represent two different modes of managing—one that values rational, informed decision making, and one that does not.
Jack Z, as I fondly call his baldness , has had a busy offseason. He started with a bang by signing Chone Figgins , 31, to a four year, $36 million dollar contract. Last year was Figgins' best year by far. He posted a WAR of 6.1, worth a cool $27.4 million. Obviously, that is going to regress some since Figgins has never posted a WAR above 3.2 in any previous season. Regardless, he's being paid about $9 million a season, roughly the salary for a 2 WAR player.
Fangraphs has him projected for a WAR of 4.3 ($19.2 million), which CHONE thinks is a bit high (triple slash line of .268/.367/.352 with plus defense). Regardless, given Figgins' ability to get on base (career OBP of .363) and average to above average defense at a variety of positions, he should easily generate more value than salary for most if not all of the contract, making it a clear win for the Mariners.
Of course, that wasn't the big Jack Z news of the offseason. It was his part in the Roy Halladay /Cliff Lee trade that showed his acumen. He traded prospects Phillippe Aumont, Juan Ramirez, and Tyson Gillies for Cliff Lee. Dave Cameron did a great breakdown of this trade from the Mariners' point of view , so I suggest you read his article to get the full picture.
However, I'll give you the short and slightly less optimistic version. In exchange for one year of Cliff Lee, a 5-6 WAR ($22-26.4 million) pitcher, and two draft picks worth $5-10 million when he likely walks, the Mariners gave up about $13 million worth of prospects and will pay $8 million in salary to Lee.
Just do the math. The Mariners gained at least $27 million in value and only gave up $21 million in value. Plus, they take on no long-term risk and have a substantial chance for more upside depending on Lee's performance and the exact picks they receive. Sounds like a win to me.
Jack Z's most recent move is another win for the Mariners. They traded Carlos Silva and $9 million (spread out over the next two years) to the Cubs in exchange for Milton Bradley . This was a worthwhile move for two reasons.
First, Carlos Silva's contract was a sunk cost. Silva is a terrible pitcher, not worthy of a roster spot, and the Mariners would have to pay that money anyway. So they basically are paying a few million for a couple years on a gamble to see if Milton Bradley can keep his anger in check and his bat in the lineup.
Second, Bradley is worth the risk. Rather than take an outright loss on Silva's remaining contract, Jack Z created at least the potential for significant upside. CHONE projects Bradley to put up a .254/.361/.416 line, while Fangraphs pegs him at 2.9 WAR ($13 million).
Of course, this comes with the Bradley caveats of injury and behavior. But unlike the Cubs, the Mariners have a DH spot to keep him healthy, and they have little invested so they can cut him loose with no compunction if necessary. And if you can get that kind of upside with little risk while jettisoning dead weight, it sounds like a win to me.
On the other end of the GM competency spectrum, we have Ed Wade of the Houston Astros. I won't comment on Wade's interpersonal skills , but this offseason has been a train-wreck for the Astros thus far. They have serious needs at a variety of positions and have done absolutely nothing to fix them.
There have been three significant moves for Wade thus far this offseason. In no particular order, they signed Pedro Feliz to a one year $4.5 million dollar deal, traded for Matt Lindstrom , and signed Brandon Lyon to a 3 year, $15 million dollar deal. Really blows you away, right?
The Feliz signing at least makes a tiny bit of sense. Over the past two seasons, Feliz, who is 34, has been worth 1.5 and 1.3 WAR respectively. Since he is unlikely to improve, a salary of $4.5 million is right in line with an expected production of 1-1.5 WAR. Unfortunately, for a team as bad as the Astros, simply earning a push isn't good enough to make up lost ground.
Now we get to the reliever part of the Wade experience. Sure, Wade did not give up any prospects of note for Matt Lindstrom, 29, but Lindstrom is a) arbitration eligible and b) not good. Because of his terrible 2009, Lindstrom is likely to receive only a modest bump in salary, to around $1.4 million. But there's a reason why he's being paid so little. The reason?
Matt Lindstrom was worth a cool 0.0 WAR last year. He actually was a tad negative in value, but to be nice, I'll round up to zero. In 2007 and 2008, he posted WARs of 1.4 and 0.8. Apparently throwing hard, straight fastballs with no control doesn't work in the Majors. And for the privilege of employing Mr. Lindstrom, Ed Wade was willing to trade three minor-leaguers and pay $1.4 million.
For all the Astros fans reading this, I apologize for making you relive the Brandon Lyon signing. In a depressed market for relievers, Ed Wade signed Lyon, 30, to a 3 year, $15 million dollar deal. Yes, for the privilege of employing an entirely fungible reliever with middling stuff, Ed Wade is willing to guarantee $5 million a year over the next three years.
This signing was insane and continues to baffle me. True, Lyon is consistent. Consistently mediocre. Here are his WARs over the past few years: 0.7, 1.5, 0.7, 0.7. It is not like Lyon is a prospect coming into his peak years. Those years constitute Lyon's peak. This is as good as he gets.
For a team with payroll limitations, contracts like Lyon's are crippling. They may look relatively harmless, but imagine if that money were used in international market on high upside prospects or in the draft. Fifteen million dollars is more than almost every team's draft budget. Instead of investing in guys like Lyon, the Astros could have used that money to bolster their farm system and improve their future. Instead, they are left with a barren farm system and a major league team with serious offensive problems, with little help on the way.
Today's baseball environment is more challenging than ever. Every year, inefficiencies become harder to exploit as front offices become better at player evaluation and resource allocation. GMs like Jack Zduriencik demonstrate that smart teams can change their fortunes through outstanding player evaluation and resource allocation. Meanwhile, guys like Ed Wade show that some teams are still stuck in the past and consequently, the bottom of the standings.
Mariners fans should rejoice since they have a solid, forward-looking GM. Astros fans have my sympathy. The road only gets harder from here as long as Ed Wade is running the show.