Astros nab Williams for bullpen depth

By Jim Callis

July 31, 2001

Shortly after bolstering their rotation with Pedro Astacio on Tuesday, the Astros made another pitching move. Houston picked up closer Mike Williams from the Pirates in exchange for minor league righthander Tony McKnight, one of the system’s better prospects.

Williams, a 33-year-old righthander, has saved at least 20 games in each of the last three seasons. The Astros won’t ask him to finish games with Billy Wagner on hand, but he’ll add to a strong righthanded setup corps that also includes Octavio Dotel and Mike Jackson. A pending free agent, Williams is 2-4, 3.67 with 22 saves in 40 games this year, and has struck out 43 in 42 innings. His slider is his money pitch, though he gets into lots of trouble when he can’t control it and has to go to his fastball and changeup. Houston must hope Williams can avoid the notorious second-half fades that plagued him in 1999 (when he had an 11.00 ERA after August 1) and 2000 (4.98 ERA after the all-star break). He becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

McKnight, 24, was rated as Houston’s fourth-best prospect by Baseball America entering 2001. But the Astros are loaded with pitching prospects, and McKnight would have had trouble cracking the rotation in the near future, especially with the emergence of young arms such as Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding. A signability pick as a 1995 first-rounder out of an Arkansas high school, McKnight has acquitted himself well in nine major league starts since last September, going 5-1, 3.91 with 33 strikeouts in 53 innings. He has spent most of this year at Triple-A New Orleans, going 9-5, 4.76 in 18 starts. McKnight at times will show three plus pitches, including a 92-94 mph fastball, and the best-case scenario is that he develops into a Ron Darling. He beat the Pirates by allowing two runs in seven innings on Saturday and could move directly into their rotation.

Houston’s bullpen has scuffled a bit recently, so Williams will help. While McKnight was expendable because of the Astros’ depth, his potential as a No. 3 starter gives the edge in this trade to the pitching-hungry Pirates.