"This is a major move toward regaining the flexibility in our payroll," Hunsicker said Monday. "We are in a situation that we have a small number of players taking up a significant part of our payroll and it causes tremendous inflexibility."
Houston got rid of Wagner, who makes $8 million next season, for right-hander Brandon Duckworth and a pair of minor league right-handers, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio.
Wagner converted a career-high 44 saves in 47 chances last season.
The Astros had a payroll of about $71 million last season and owner Drayton McLane doesn't intend to increase it next season.
"We're not there yet," Hunsicker said. "This is not the end result of a process. This is the beginning of a process. We've got to continue to look for opportunities, and where that takes us is difficult to say."
Wagner predicted his own departure on the final day of the regular season when he criticized the Astros for not making a move to bolster the roster for a playoff run.
"I'd heard rumbling that I might be traded and stuff," Wagner said. "I was surprised when it happened just because of how close the Astros were to getting to the playoffs and having the season I had. We might have made a step and got another starting pitcher. They obviously are going a different way."
The Astros could reduce payroll even more if they trade right fielder Richard Hidalgo, who is due $12 million for 2004 and has a contract with a $15 million team option in 2005.
First baseman Jeff Bagwell will earn $13 million in 2004, and second baseman Jeff Kent gets $8.5 million, of which $5.5 million is deferred without interest. Houston holds a $9 million option on Kent in 2005.
`He's got the physical talent to be a closer," Hunsicker said of Dotel. "We'll make that decision in spring training, but that's the plan. We feel very fortunate we've got somebody like Dotel and Lidge to come behind (Wagner). Both will have opportunities to close out games."
Hunsicker said the Astros' salary structure became inflexible because of too many long-term contracts.
"We've made a lot of decisions with the heart," Hunsicker said. "For the sake of winning for the sake of fan identification, we tried to keep as many of our star players together for as long as we could but we can't do that forever."
The Astros expect Duckworth to contend for a spot in the starting rotation. He was 4-7 with a 4.94 ERA in 18 starts and six relief appearances last season. and he has a 15-18 record in three major league seasons.
"He was one of our better pitchers out of spring training," Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "But he opened on the disabled list and was trying to catch up the whole year and that hurt him. The change of scenery is going to help him. He's got big league stuff. Hopefully, this will jump start his career."
Buchholz was 9-11 in 24 Double-A starts last season. The Astros project him to begin the season at Triple-A New Orleans. Astacio likely will begin at Double-A Round Rock.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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