Phillies acquire LH closer Wagner from Astros

Updated: November 3, 2003, 2:15 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA - With a promising young rotation, the Philadelphia Phillies have found themselves a reliable closer.

The Phillies took a major step at improving their bullpen Monday, acquiring closer Billy Wagner from the Houston Astros for righthander Brandon Duckworth and two minor leaguers.

The move to acquire one of the game's premier closers comes less than a month after the Phillies declined to exercise the contract option on closer Jose Mesa, who lost his job last season.

The lefthander made his third All-Star appearance last season, going 1-4 with a 1.78 ERA and 44 saves and in 78 games.

"We met with our pro scouts and staff in Clearwater three weeks ago, we prioritized our needs and decided that the closer should be at the top of the list," Phillies general manager Ed Wade said. "We went through the list of available closers and ranked them. Billy Wagner was at the top of our list. Billy offers a huge improvement for the 2004 Phillies."

But finances likely played a role in the Astros' decision to trade Wagner, who was scheduled to make $8 million in the final year of a three-year contract. The Phillies also inherit Wagner's 2005 option for $9 million, which includes a buyout at $3 million.

Wagner, 32, also questioned the commitment of the Astros' ownership on the final day of the regular season, blasting owner Drayton McLane for what he perceived as a budget too frugal to keep the team competitive.

"Billy has made a tremendous contribution to our success during his time here," said Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker. "He is a homegrown player who developed into one of the game's best closers. We thank him for all his accomplishments and all he has meant to this team, and we wish him the best of luck in the future."

One of baseball's hardest throwers, Wagner is the Astros all-time leader in saves with 225. He owns a career record of 26-29 and a 5.53 ERA with 695 strikeouts in 504 1/3 career innings.

Since the start of the 2001 season, Wagner has converted 118-of-129 save opportunities. Last season, the Phillies' bullpen had 18 blown saves.

"He's one of the most dominant closers in baseball," Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "He's right up there with Eric Gagne and John Smoltz in that when he comes into the game, it's over."

The Phillies have a solid young rotation that includes Brett Myers, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla. But the club was desperate to improve a bullpen that faltered last season.

Philadelphia battled eventual world champion Florida for the National League wild card before fading in the final week of the season. The Phillies finished with an 86-76 record, and have not been to the postseason since reaching the World Series in 1993.

In addition to Mesa's problems last season, the Phillies also watched reliever Mike Williams struggle after they acquired the All-Star from Pittsburgh in July.

Williams went 0-4 with a 5.96 ERA with three saves in 28 games for the Phillies. Like Mesa, the club also failed to exercise his contract option, making him a free agent.

It also is the second straight year the Phillies, who will move into Citizens Bank Park next season, have accomplished one of their major offseason priorities. Last season, they signed slugger Jim Thome to a six-year, $85 million contract.

While they parted with their top reliever, the Astros believe premier set-up reliever Octavio Dotel can take over the closer's role and will move Duckworth into their rotation.

Duckworth, who turns 28 in January, lost his job as the Phillies' fifth starter last season. He went just 4-7 with a 4.94 ERA in 24 games, including 18 starts.

In three season, Duckworth is an unimpressive 15-18 with a 4.87 ERA in 65 games, including 58 starts.

The Astros also acquired pitching prospects Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio in the deal.

"We're excited to add a pitcher of Brandon Duckworth's caliber, and we look forward to his contribution to our club in 2004," Hunsicker said. "We also feel that Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio have the potential to develop into outstanding Major League pitchers."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index