Althought it appears Andrew Friedman has the Midas touch, not every move he makes turns to gold. While no front office will hit on every transaction, the hope is they come out more often than not. For the Tampa Bay Rays this has been the case since the Friedman regime took over prior to the 2006 season. Relatively small in regards to the grand scheme of things, the team’s decision to release right-handed reliever Cory Wade in June serves as an example of a rare misstep by the Rays front office.
Following shoulder surgery — and minor league rehab — Wade did not pitch in the majors during the 2010 season. He was let go by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, leaving the Rays to do what they do: sign castoff talent to a low-risk contract in hopes of recouping potential reward. For Wade, that meant rekindling the success he had as a rookie in 2008, when he posted a 3.78 FIP in 71.1 innings of work.
Despite a wide-open bullpen competition in spring training, Wade did not make the team out of camp. Instead he was assigned to Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate. With the Durham Bulls, he posted a solid 8.35 K/9 while showing excellent control (1.47 BB/9) — a continued strength of his. Not uncommon, his minor-league contract included an opt-out clause. The Rays did him a favor and released the right-hander on June 12, a few days prior to his opt-out date. Wade promptly turned around and signed with the New York Yankees. The move did not shatter the earth; however, considering how much the Rays value organizational depth, the transaction did not — and still does not — make sense.
At the time, Tampa Bay had Andy Sonnanstine as the seventh man in their bullpen. In the month prior to Wade’s release (5/12-6/12), Sonnanstine was barely a member of the roster. He appeared in six games including three spot starts for the injured Jeff Niemann. Even when he was used, his 7.32 FIP shows how effective he was. He also had a remaining option to the minor leagues. Considering Wade’s performance and potential, as well as Sonnanstine’s “production” and lack of usage, the simple move would have been promoting Wade and dumping Sonnanstine. Tampa Bay would be upgrading the bullpen while maintaining the organization’s depth chart.
As we all know, the Rays did not make that move and the Yankees capitalized on the opportunity. After June 15, Sonnanstine made two more low-leverage appearances out of the bullpen before he was finally optioned to Triple-A. He was recalled on September 2 and has resumed his role as the low man on the leverage index. Wade, on the other hand, has posted a 1.92 ERA in 32.2 innings out of the Yankees bullpen.
Wade’s FIP of 3.39 and xFIP of 3.72 suggest he has not been as good as his sparking ERA; however, he has been an above-average middle reliever on a team that started the season with question marks in the bullpen. His 6.61 strikeout rate is pedestrian and his 0.83 HR/9 is a bit fortunate for a fl-ball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, but his control remains fantastic (1.93 BB/9) and he has been effective against batters on both sides of the plate.
At first glance, Wade’s velocity and strikeout rate do not scream “swing-and-miss stuff.” Meanwhile, his secondary stuff generates them in bunches. Although he has a poor whiff rate on his fastball, his overall swinging-strike rate is 10.4%. His changeup and curveball are the reasons why. Hitters are swinging and missing at 20% of his changeups and nearly 15% of his curves. The off-speed pitch has also help keep his platoon split in decent order.
The Wade/Sonnanstine decision was not a short-term choice either. At age 28, Wade still has arbitration eligibility, meaning the Yankees control his rights for seasons to come. Because he will not see many save opportunities, his price tag will remain relatively low. With Wade, David Robertson, and potentially Hector Noesi, Brian Cashman has assembled a young-ish, cost-efficient, yet highly effective bridge to the ninth inning. Sonnanstine is also under team control for a few more years; however, he is due a seven-figure salary in arbitration and is a non-tender candidate.
Odds are Cory Wade will never turn into a relief ace. That said, he is a serviceable reliever with a low salary. Meanwhile, Sonnanstine appears to be headed for journeyman status. Tampa Bay has wisely used the “process” in their decision making, and it has been very good to the them. However, in his case, it appears the process was misguided.