Fireballer traded for Duckworth, two others

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.

"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

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

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

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.