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Monday, November 3, 2003
Updated: November 5, 12:16 PM ET
Fireballer traded for Duckworth, two others

Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Billy Wagner questioned Houston ownership's commitment to winning. He won't have those problems with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The All-Star closer was traded Monday from the cost-cutting Astros to the Phillies for right-hander Brandon Duckworth, and minor league right-handers Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio.

Wagner, a three-time All-Star, goes from one of baseball's best bullpens to among its worst. The Phillies converted just 33 saves in 51 opportunities as Jose Mesa and Mike Williams both faltered.

FANTASY FOCUS
The Billy Wagner trade is also good news for fantasy owners, who will get another closer to pick in 2004 drafts. However, don't assume that setup man Octavio Dotel will automatically assume the closer's role. Dotel was Houston's closer in 2000 when Wagner was injured, and he blew nearly a third of his chances and had an ERA over 4 as a reliever. Brad Lidge, meanwhile, has also been groomed to close games. Until hitting a second-half wall this season, Lidge (above) was nearly as dominant as Dotel - and Wagner. Figure on this being a key position battle, not automatically Dotel's job to lose. As for Wagner, his value doesn't change; he goes from one potential playoff team to another, though Philly must get him setup men - like he had in Houston.
--Eric Karabell
For more Fantasy Dirt on the big trade, click here.

"I'm excited about coming to Philadelphia because they obviously have made a commitment to winning a championship," Wagner said.

Wagner had criticized Astros owner Drayton McLane for not making a move to get another quality starting pitcher for the 2003 season and expected more of the same for next season.

"It's going to be a tape job," Wagner said after the season finale. "It's not like we're going out there and getting any marquee pitchers."

Wagner didn't back off his comments after the trade.

"My comments to Drayton were truthful. They were about winning, not about him being a bad owner," Wagner said.

Whatever the case, the Phillies are thrilled to have him. General manager Ed Wade said getting a closer was the team's top priority in the offseason.

"Billy Wagner was at the top of our list," Wade said.

Phillies manager Larry Bowa compared Wagner to Atlanta's John Smoltz and Los Angeles' Eric Gagne.

"He's a dominant closer," Bowa said. "There's a big void we filled real quick."

Wagner was 1-4 with a 1.78 ERA last season and had 44 saves in 47 chances, making a career-high 78 appearances. Mesa converted 24 of 28 saves for the Phillies, and had seven losses and a 6.52 ERA. Williams, an All-Star with Pittsburgh, was 0-4 with a 6.38 ERA and three saves in five chances after being acquired by the Phillies in July.

With eight games left, Philadelphia was a half-game ahead of Florida, which went on to win the wild card and the World Series. But the Phillies lost six straight and seven of their last eight.

The Phillies are moving into a new ballpark in April, and the trade for Wagner has generated a lot of excitement among fans that can translate into increased ticket sales.

Wagner is due to make $8 million next season, the third in a $27 million, three-year contract he agreed to in January 2002. The deal contains a $9 million team option for 2005 with a $3 million buyout.

Wade said the Phillies won't try to extend Wagner's deal before next season ends. He said the team still has the flexibility to add a starter to the top of its rotation. Kevin Millwood filed for free agency, and it's unlikely he'll return.

For the Astros, this was a money move. McLane has said the team lost money this season.

"This is somewhat of a sad experience," the owner said. "He's one of our own and has developed into one of the premier players in baseball. But you move forward, and you have to constantly renew the team, and this is a step forward. We hate very much to make this decision, but it certainly helps us in giving us flexibility."

Octavio Dotel is likely to assume the closer's job, with Brad Lidge in line to replace Dotel as the setup man. Dotel was acquired in another salary motivated deal that sent pitcher Mike Hampton to the Mets after the 1999 season.

Dotel was 6-4 with a 2.48 ERA and four saves last season, and has 28 career saves.

"He's got the makeup to be the closer," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "He's got the physical talent to be the closer and that's something we'll have to decide in spring training."

Duckworth, 27, was 4-7 with a 4.94 ERA in 18 starts and six relief appearances. Buchholz, 22, went 9-11 with a 3.55 ERA in 25 games (24 starts) for Double-A Reading of the Eastern League.

Astacio, who turns 24 Tuesday, was 15-5 with a 3.29 ERA at Class-A Clearwater of the Florida State League.

Duckworth once was considered a top prospect in Philadelphia. He went 14-0 with a 1.86 ERA at Triple-A Scranton in 2001 and was 4-4 with a 4.04 ERA in 11 starts that season for the Phillies, who finished two games behind first-place Atlanta. But Duckworth struggled the next two years, and lost his spot in the rotation last season.

Wagner was part of four division championship teams in Houston, but the Astros failed to get past the first round each time, losing to Atlanta in 1997, 1999 and 2001 and to San Diego in 1998.

"We were always a player or two short," Wagner said.

This is the second straight offseason in which the Phillies got the player they most wanted. They signed free agent first baseman Jim Thome to an $85 million, six-year contract last December.