Closer Valverde Dealt To Active Astros

The Deal
On the same day they acquired righthanders Dan Haren and Billy Buckner in separate deals, the Diamondbacks also traded their closer, and NL saves leader, Jose Valverdeto the Astros for three players: righthanders Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez and second baseman Chris Burke.
The Big Leaguers

Valverde, 28, has spent his entire five-year career alternating good seasons with mediocre ones. Last year, he was quite good, going 1-4, 2.66 to go with a league-leading 47 saves and 78-26 K-BB in 64 1/3 innings. He even got enough Cy Young award votes to finish sixth in the balloting. The imposing and exuberant Valverde deals heat in the high-90s and backs it up with a very good splitter. Improved fastball command in 2007 resulted in perhaps his most consistent season. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1997, Valverde has gone 9-14, 3.29 with 98 saves, 331 strikeouts, 111 walks and 29 home runs allowed in 260 career innings.

Qualls, 29, has been one of the NL’s most called upon relievers over the past three seasons, finishing in the top 10 for appearances each time. Now he, Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler, the backbone of the Astros’ 2004 and 2005 playoff teams, have been scattered to the wind by trades, all in the past five months. Armed with a high-80s sinker and a slider, Qualls gets his share of groundball outs (2.11 per flyout last year), but with a four-seamer that reaches 95 mph, he’s more than a pitch-to-contact hurler. He hiked his strikeout rate to 8.5 per nine innings in 2007—after years of 6.8 and 5.7—which isn’t surprising given that he won the Texas League’s strikeout title in 2002 while playing for Double-A Round Rock. A second-round pick from Nevada in 2000, Qualls has gone 23-12, 3.39 with 218-84 K-BB in 284 innings for his career.

Burke, 27, failed to parlay his status as a first-round pick (10th overall in 2001 from Tennessee) into a full-time gig with the Astros. In most seasons, he lost playing time at his natural position of second base to Craig Biggio. Burke also played all three outfield spots for Houston, but didn’t offer the offense for a corner or the defense for center. He hit just .229/.304/.357 in 319 at-bats last season—including .224/.289/.353 in the second half when Biggio vacated the keystone after collecting his 3,000th hit. Though he’s hit a mild .249/.319/.377 for his career, Burke will be remembered for his 18th-inning, walk-off, series-winning home run in Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS against the Braves.

The Prospect
Gutirrez, 24, went 5-10, 4.15 with 108-63 K-BB for Triple-A Round Rock in 2007, ranking 10th in the Pacific Coast League in ERA. Because his low-90s sinker and plus changeup are his best offerings, Gutierrez likely will fill a relief role in the big leagues. His curveball is below-average most of the time, giving further credence to the profile. He’s a product of Houston’s strong Venezuela pipeline, having signed in 2000. Gutierrez made his big league debut in August and went just 1-1, 5.91 but with 16-6 K-BB in 21 innings. He’s gone 36-26, 3.45 in 555 minor league innings with 457 strikeouts and 211 walks.
Quick Take
More than anything, one has to admire the Diamondbacks’ proactive approach to the offseason. Sure, Arizona won 90 games and advanced to the NLCS last season and figures to see improvement from more than half its young position players in 2008, but the fact remains they were outscored handily on the year. Pairing the recently-acquired Haren with staff ace Brandon Webb and adding pitching depth in Qualls, Gutierrez and Buckner should go a long way toward improving that run differential.

Moving Valverde at the height of his trade value—for three useful players—allows the Diamondbacks to try Tony Pena or Qualls in the closer’s role, while Burke effectively functions as a replacement for utilityman Alberto Callaspo, who was dealt to acquire the promising Buckner.

New Astros general manager Ed Wade has worked feverishly to reshape the Astros for 2008, trading for Miguel Tejada, Oscar Villarreal, Michael Bourn, Mike Costanzo and Geoff Geary and signing free agents Kazuo Matsui and Doug Brocail. Houston appears to be in better shape for next season, but the cost in talent has been high: Brad Lidge, Luke Scott, Matt Albers, Troy Patton, Costanzo and Josh Anderson.

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