As I acknowledged in my last article, Ed Wade was far from a perfect GM with the Phillies, and although his flaws have been exaggerated badly by Phillies fans over the years, those that are legit are certainly subject to criticism. Some of those criticisms are getting an airing now as a backlash to the revisionist evaluations of Wade that were recently published by Jim Salisbury and David Murphy.
One of the most popular targets for the ire of Wade critics is his 2003 decision to sign third baseman David Bell as a free agent. (Here is a rather amusing example of this phenomenon.) I disliked this signing at the time myself, and Bell was probably my least favorite Phillie while he was here. But you know what? If you go back and take a closer look at the stats, they show that the signing not only worked out fine for the Phillies, but it was also a perfectly defensible decision at the time it was made.
According to the popular myth, Wade inexplicably threw an enormous contract at Bell and Bell proceeded to stink for the entirety of his time with the Phils. In reality, both halves of this myth are false. First, Bell's contract was not really all that generous. It was long (four years), but it was for $17 million total - an average of only $4.25 million per year. To put that in perspective, in 2002, 1 fWAR was worth about $2.6 million, and it would inflate to $3.8 million by 2006, the last year of Bell's deal. Even if you think the Phillies front office had no right, when they signed Bell, to expect any salary inflation to occur in the future, Bell still only needed to average about 1.6 fWAR per season to "earn" his entire contract. In his five seasons as a starter before coming to Philadelphia, he averaged 2.0 fWAR per season.
Second, Bell didn't suck as a Phillie. He certainly sucked in his first season, when he was injured and posted a terrible OPS of .579 in 85 games. But that was only one season out of four. I understand that it is in the nature of Phillies fans to form initial impressions of players, which then became utterly unshakable even in the face of new facts. But that doesn't make it right. It isn't a very rational way of looking at the world.
Everyone forgets that in 2004, Bell was a good hitter (.821 OPS). Maybe PEDs had something to do with that, maybe not, but a lot of his contemporaries were users too, so for comparative purposes, I don't think that matters. He slipped a lot in 2005 and 2006, but even in those seasons he was non-horrible for a 3B. Plus, he was consistently good in the field throughout his Phillies tenure. Over 467 games as a Phillies 3B, Bell posted a solid +17.7 UZR and +19 TZ. This allowed him to accumulate 5.9 fWAR over 3.6 seasons (he was traded to Milwaukee on July 28, 2006). Even when he had the .579 OPS in 2003, his fWAR was positive (well, 0.1) because of his fielding.
5.9 WAR in 3.6 seasons isn't exactly spectacular, but it was worth a lot more than what the Phillies paid for it. I'm not sure if the trade to Milwaukee included any cash considerations one way or the other, but if it didn't and if you prorate Bell's salary for 2006, the Phillies ended up paying him about $15.2 million over the life of the deal. According to Fangraphs, Bell gave the Phillies about $19.2 million of value.
Now, what was a mistake on Wade's part was trading Placido Polanco to Detroit in 2005. You may recall that the Phillies offered arbitration to Polanco when he hit free agency after the 2004 season, expecting him to decline it so that they'd get compensation picks. But the market wasn't to Polanco's liking that year so he unexpectedly accepted the arbitration offer. This left the Phillies with a numbers crunch between Polanco, Bell, and Chase Utley shuffling in and out at 2B and 3B. Wade chose to fix this "problem" by trading Polanco away. Polanco then signed an extension with the Tigers and played great for them for four-plus seasons.
But even if trading Polanco was a mistake, that doesn't retroactively make it the fault of the Bell signing. The Bell signing didn't inevitably create the Polanco situation, and trading Polanco wasn't the only way for Wade to handle that situation - he just chose a bad solution is all. What's more, there wasn't even anything necessarily wrong with trading Polanco. Just because you have two guys at the same position doesn't mean that you have to get rid of the guy who's worse. It might make more sense to get rid of the guy who's better, provided that you get back more in return. The problem with the Polanco deal was that Wade didn't get equal value for him. Instead, he got far less value in exchange, in the form of a middle reliever (shocker!). As we all know, middle relievers were always Wade's Bane.
Also, that middle reliever went home after the season and attacked a bunch of guys with a machete and tried to pour gasoline on them and light them on fire. Although Wade probably had no way of knowing that would happen.