Phillies find closer, Astros stash cash

By Jim Callis
November 3, 2003

The Phillies fell short of their great expectations in 2003, and their closer woes played a part in them missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Astros are trying to deal with budget constraints and several large contracts. That made the clubs a good fit as trading partners, and they consummated the first big deal of the offseason on Monday. Philadelphia picked up three-time all-star closer Billy Wagner in exchange for three righthanders: big leaguer Brandon Duckworth and prospects Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio.

The only reason that the Astros dealt Wagner, a 32-year-old lefty, is that he made too much money for their taste. He’s due $8 million in 2004 and either $9 million in salary or a $3 million buyout in 2005, and Houston can plug Octavio Dotel into the closer’s role and promote Brad Lidge to be Dotel’s setup man. Wagner is coming off one of his best seasons, as he went 1-4, 1.78 with a career-high 44 saves (in 47 tries) and 78 appearances. He had a 105-23 strikeout-walk ratio in 86 innings and limited opponents to a .169 average. His out pitch is a fastball that still can touch triple digits on occasion, and he backs it up with a curveball. In 464 games over nine big league seasons, Wagner has gone 26-29, 2.53 with an Astros-record 225 saves and 694 strikeouts in 504 innings.

The best arm on Houston’s end of the deal belongs to Buchholz, who becomes arguably the system’s top prospect. A 2000 sixth-round pick out of a Pennsylvania high school, the 22-year-old Buchholz has three potential plus pitches. He has a lively fastball that sits in the low 90s and reach 95, a curveball that’s his top offering and an improving changeup. Doctors found a calcium chip in his elbow, but it was lodged in a muscle and caused him no pain, so he didn’t need surgery. He projects as a No. 3 starters. This season, he went 9-11, 3.55 at Double-A Reading, with a 114-33 K-BB ratio and .249 opponent average in 145 innings.

Duckworth, 27, was one of several Phillies to clash with manager Larry Bowa in 2003, when he went 4-7, 4.94 in 24 games (18 starts). In 93 innings, he had a 68-44 K-BB ratio and .272 opponent average, and he also made six minor league starts. He has solid but not spectacular stuff, throwing a fastball, curveball and changeup. He gets into trouble when he loses command of the strike zone, and that happened too often to suit Bowa this year. Duckworth missed the start of the season with a sore elbow but returned without having surgery. He has a career mark of 15-18, 4.87 in 65 big league games and will contend for a spot at the back of Houston’s rotation in 2004. He made $325,000 in 2003 and won’t be eligible for arbitration until after next season.

Astacio was traded one day before his 24th birthday. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1998, he has filled out his 6-foot-3 frame and bumped his fastball from 88 mph to 90-93. He also has a solid curveball and a promising changeup. He throws strikes but needs to refine his command within the zone. He led Phillies farmhands in victories in 2003, going 15-5, 3.29 at high Class A Clearwater. He also had an 83-29 K-BB ratio in 148 innings, and held opponents to a .247 average.