Astros Ask Huff To Bolster Offense

Deal could open third base for Upton

Looking to bolster the 13th-ranked offense in the National League in hopes of making another of their patented second-half runs, the Astros added Aubrey Huff on Wednesday. In the first trade after the all-star break, the Devil Rays received a pair of Double-A prospects, righthander Mitch Talbot and shortstop Ben Zobrist. Tampa Bay also contributed slightly more than half of the remainder of Huff's $6.75 million salary for 2006.

Huff, 29, missed three weeks early in the season with a sprained left knee but is making a run at his fifth consecutive 20-homer season. A solid hitter for power and average, he's hitting .283/.348/.461 with eight homers and 28 RBIs in 63 games, typical Aubrey Huff production. His speed, range and arm strength are all below average, so he doesn't offer much on the basepaths or with the glove. He has played solely at third base this year but has seen time at first base and in the outfield in the past. He most likely will enter the Houston lineup in right field, replacing Jason Lane (who was demoted to Triple-A after the trade), or at first base, if the Astros shift all-star Lance Berkman to right. Huff will become a free agent when his three-year, $14.5 million contract expires at the end of the season. He has batted .287/.343/.477 with 128 homers and 449 RBIs in 799 career games.

Talbot, 22, signed as a second-round pick out of a Utah high school in 2002. He had frustrated some Astros officials with his inconsistency in the past but has hit his stride this season. In 18 games (17 starts) at Corpus Christi, he went 6-4, 3.39. He had a 96-29 K-BB ratio in 90 innings, while opponents batted .269 with four homers against him. Talbot's best pitch is his changeup, and he also owns a solid fastball. His ability to develop a reliable breaking ball will determine if he becomes a No. 3-5 starter or a middle reliever in the long run.

Zobrist, 25, has been old for his leagues but never has hit less than .304 at any of his four minor league stops. A sixth-round pick from Dallas Baptist in 2004, he was hitting .327/.434/.473 with thee homers, 30 RBIs and nine steals in 83 games at Corpus Christi. A switch-hitter, he stands out the most for his ability to handle the bat, but all his tools except for power are average. The Astros often compared him to former standout utilityman Bill Spiers, and Zobrist projects more in that role than as a regular.

Both Talbot and Zobrist were assigned to Double-A Montgomery.

The trade may clear a spot in Tampa Bay's lineup for B.J. Upton, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft. Upton proved he could hit big league pitching when he arrived in the majors as a teenager in late 2004, but his defensive struggles at shortstop have kept him at Triple-A Durham ever since. The Rays announced that he will move to third base, at least for the short term, but didn't rule out that he could return to shortstop.

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