November 5, 2003

Wagner to the Phils

After spending the last few days talking about all of the available free agents (The Meat Market: Part One, Part Two, Part Three), it's time to get caught up on a big story that happened this week...

The Philadelphia Phillies, not wanting to wait to see what the free agent closer-market would look like, acquired Billy Wagner from the Houston Astros in exchange for pitchers Brandon Duckworth, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio.

I think this is one of those rare trades that is pretty good for both teams. It is good for the Phillies because they get one of the premier relievers in all of baseball, who is locked in for $8 million in 2004, with a team-option for $9 mill in 2005. It is good for the Astros because they apparently needed to cut some salary and in dumping Wagner they got three relatively valuable pitchers in return.

All things being equal I think I would rather have Billy Wagner than the three pitchers the Astros got in return for him, but baseball teams usually don't operate under "all things being equal." The Phillies are in a position where they can add payroll, so they did. The Astros are in a position where they had to cut payroll, and they did. You don't always get equal value in a situation like that.

It always hurts to lose a pitcher the caliber of Wagner, but the Astros are in the unique position of having an extraordinarily good setup-man in place to step in as closer.

Take a look at what these two mystery pitchers have done over the last three years:

                  IP      ERA      SO/9     BB/9     HR/9     OAVG

Pitcher X      289.1     2.33     11.20     3.26     0.65     .185

Pitcher Z      223.2     2.29     10.48     2.62     0.80     .186

Those two pitching-lines belong to two of the most dominant relievers in all of baseball, Octavio Dotel (Pitcher X) and Billy Wagner (Pitcher Z). The Astros have had the good fortune of having both of them in their bullpen during that time.

It is a little like when the Yankees had John Wetteland closing games with Mariano Rivera setting him up. Wagner now leaves, just like Wetteland did after the 1996 season, and the Astros are obviously hoping Dotel becomes the next Mariano Rivera.

Aside from losing a great reliever, the other downside to this for Houston is that Dotel is now put into a role where his usage is very limited. In the past the Astros could stick him into a game in the seventh or eighth inning, whenever they had a jam, and keep him in their for six, eight, 10 batters. Now he's stuck pitching the ninth innings of games Houston has a lead in.

Dotel has pitched 105, 97.1 and 87 innings over the last three years. I will be shocked if he gets even 75 innings as Houston's closer in 2004.

Houston's bullpen alignment over the last few years is what I feel is the optimal setup with the way closers are used right now. If teams are determined to use their "closer" in a very rigid role without much room for versatility, it pays to have a setup-man who is actually a better pitcher than the closer. Because, while closing out games in the ninth inning is important, I think coming into close games in the late innings for everything that isn't a "save situation" is probably even more valuable, especially if the setup-man is used correctly.

I think Houston had this over the last few years, with Dotel setting up Wagner, although I guess it's debatable who the better pitcher is. Minnesota has had a similar situation, with Latroy Hawkins setting up Eddie Guardado. And there are probably a couple other teams who have done this lately as well.

In a perfect world, the strict usage for closers would be done away with. Next to that happening, the next best thing for a team is to continue using their closer in their defined role, but to have that closer be the second or third-best reliever on the team, with the best reliever serving as his setup-man, able to come into any game, at any time.

If I didn't think it would bruise his ego too much, I might even consider keeping Dotel as the setup-man, and making someone like Brad Lidge (85 IP, 3.60 ERA) the closer. But I'm one of those weirdos who isn't obsessed by "saves," so I'm probably crazy.

Adding Wagner to Philadelphia's bullpen is going to have a huge impact. Philadelphia had the third-best team Equivalent Average in the National League last season and they will likely have essentially the same lineup intact, so the pitching-staff is the place to make improvements. They may lose Kevin Millwood to free agency, which is certainly a big loss, but they should be able to find another good starter among the group of free agent pitchers I discussed yesterday. If they can fill Millwood's spot with a solid starter, the addition of Wagner will make them a much better pitching-staff than last season.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Wagner was the third-best relief pitcher in baseball last year. The guy he replaces as Philadelphia's closer, Jose Mesa, was ranked as the third-worst pitcher in all of baseball last year. That's one hell of an upgrade. And it might be even better than it appears, because Wagner has a miniscule 1.19 ERA away from hitter-friendly Enron/Minute Maid/whatever Park over the last three years.

On the other side of this deal, the Astros get three young pitchers. Or at least that is what all the stories I have read about this trade say. Actually though, Brandon Duckworth turns 28 years old in about two months, so the "young pitcher" ship has long sailed with him.

Along with Old Man Duckworth, whom I think can be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, the Astros did get two legitimately young pitchers from Philadelphia. The better prospect of the two is Taylor Buchholz, who was originally Philadelphia's sixth-round pick back in the 2000 draft.

His minor league track-record is pretty impressive:

         LVL      IP      ERA     SO/9     BB/9     HR/9

2000       R      44     2.25     8.39     2.86     0.41

2001       A     177     3.36     6.93     2.90     0.41

2002      A+     159     3.29     7.32     2.89     0.62

2003      AA     145     3.55     7.09     2.05     0.87

I left out a rough 23-inning stint Buchholz had after moving up to Double-A for the first time in 2002.

I don't think those are the numbers of a future ace, but they certainly suggest a guy who can be a successful starting pitcher in the major leagues.

His strikeout-rate has stayed at the same level as he has advanced up to higher levels of competition, which is a very good sign. His walk-rate actually improved by about 30% this year in Double-A. The only rate that declined is his home runs allowed, but that is to be expected as a pitcher moves up the ladder. And certainly allowing 0.87 homers per nine innings (14 in 144.2 IP) is nothing to get concerned about at all.

I think Buchholz could use a full year in Triple-A next year, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him in Houston at some point in 2004. He's got a good chance to join their rotation for good well before he turns 24 years old.

Aside from having a really cool name, Ezequiel Astacio isn't nearly as good a prospect. Astacio has pitched well throughout his minor league career (3.29 ERA this year, 3.31 ERA in 2002), but his strikeout-rate is sub par and he is already 24 years old and has not pitched a single inning above Single-A. I could certainly see him becoming a back-of-the-rotation starter in the future or an okay bullpen guy though, and it never hurts to add young arms to the system.

I think I would say that the Phillies "won" this trade, but also that the Astros did pretty well, considering the circumstances. They felt they had to dump Wagner's salary and there are plenty of good closers on the market as free agents right now, so getting the three guys they did wasn't a bad haul.
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