Astros trade Wagner to Phillies

Updated: November 4, 2003, 2:19 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Billy Wagner wanted the Houston Astros to acquire a quality starting pitcher. Now he could help the Philadelphia Phillies get one.

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.

It's the first move in what could be another interesting offseason for the suddenly free-spending Phillies. Philadelphia hopes to land a top starter and setup reliever. Wagner should make the Phillies an attractive spot for free agents.

"If you're a free agent pitcher thinking about the Phillies, you know if you're walking off the mound in the seventh inning, the ninth inning is pretty well covered," Phillies general manager Ed Wade said.

Among the starters the Phillies are considering are Chicago White Sox free agent Bartolo Colon, Montreal's Javier Vazquez and Arizona's Curt Schilling. Vazquez or Schilling would have to be acquired through a trade. Kevin Millwood, who pitched last season for the Phillies, is a free agent. It's unlikely he'll return, but Wade said he plans to talk to Millwood's agent Scott Boras.

Wagner, a three-time All-Star, predicted his departure from Houston 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.

"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.

"I just want to win," he said.

Wagner goes from one of baseball's best bullpens to one of its worst. The Phillies converted just 33 saves in 51 opportunities as Jose Mesa and Mike Williams both faltered. Manager Larry Bowa used five other relievers to close games late in the season while his team fought for a wild-card spot.

"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 had 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 could 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.

For the Astros, this was a salary dump. Team owner Drayton McLane has said the team lost money this season.

"We hate very much to make this decision, but it certainly helps us in giving us flexibility," McLane said.

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 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-Wilkes-Barre 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.

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