- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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PHILADELPHIA -- If the Philadelphia Phillies had a closer like Billy Wagner this past season, the video clips you saw last week of the World Series victory parade might not have been coming to you from beautiful downtown Miami.
"If the Phillies had had Billy Wagner this season," a longtime National League scout said Monday, "the Marlins wouldn't have won the World Series -- because they wouldn't have won the wild card. The Phillies would have won it."
And it practically was that simple, too. The Phillies blew 18 of their 51 save opportunities this year (35 percent) -- the worst conversion rate of any National League contender except the Cardinals. So you sure don't need to be a distant relative of Rollie Fingers to understand why Wagner was the No. 1 item on their offseason shopping list.
Instead, the big questions -- in the wake of the Phillies' trade with Houston that brought Wagner to Philadelphia on Monday, in exchange for pitchers Brandon Duckworth, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio -- go something like this:
Did the Astros get enough back?
Why and how did this trade go down so fast?
And what's next for both of these teams?
So let's take those topics one by one:
DID THE ASTROS GET ENOUGH?
First off, you can't evaluate modern baseball money deals like this one just by looking at the three players the Astros got back. This deal was about Andy Pettitte -- and the Astros' ability to acquire him, or someone like him -- as much as it was about Brandon Duckworth or Taylor Buchholz.
"For us," said Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, "this was a matter of trying to regain some flexibility in our budget. We'd just gotten to the point where we had a small number of players eating up a significant portion of our payroll. And it created an inflexibility to do anything. So as painful as this was, it was something we had to begin to address."
By dealing Wagner, the Astros free themselves of $8 million in salary next year, and either a $9-million option or a $3-million buyout for 2005. Meanwhile, teams that have spoken with them say they're also trying to move Richard Hidalgo, who will make $12 million next year and has a $15-million option or $2-million buyout for 2005.
If they can shake enough dollars out of their money tree, their obvious hope is to turn around and see what all that saved money can buy them. And if you translate that to mean "Andy Pettitte," you're on the right track.
Hunsicker won't talk about Pettitte, because he hasn't officially filed for free agency yet. But it would be impossible for the Astros to be located in Houston and not hear all those rumblings that, if Pettitte decides to leave the Yankees, his first choice is to stay as close to home as possible. Since his home is located in suburban Houston, he couldn't get much closer than the Astros.
But while the Astros wait for the Hidalgo/Pettitte scenarios to play themselves out, they're happy with the guys they got.
The Phillies had a bunch of teams interested in dealing for Duckworth, who owns 275 career strikeouts in 325 big-league innings and clearly needed a change of scenery. Scouts we surveyed still view Duckworth as a guy who has a chance to be a very good major-league starter if he can restore his delivery and confidence to what they were when he reached the major leagues in 2001.
"He just needs to get his command back," said one scout. "The stuff is there."
But it probably will be Buchholz who holds the key to this deal. Indications are that once the Astros determined they couldn't pry loose either of the Phillies' top two pitching prospects -- Cole Hamels or Gavin Floyd -- their insistence on Buchholz almost kept this trade from happening at all.
Wade said no for nearly a week. But eventually, he said, "I had a talk with myself, and others, who told me I should be a little less stubborn about this."
So finally, late last week, he agreed to include Buchholz, who is viewed as either a potential No. 2-type starter or a future closer -- and could be in the big leagues as soon as the All-Star break next summer.
The jury is still deliberating on Astacio. But he did lead the Florida State League in victories this season (with 15) and ran off 10 wins in a row at one point. So there seems little doubt he'll pitch in the big leagues at some point in the next couple of years.
Hunsicker knows his fans -- and players, for that matter -- will have questions about this. But he once traded Mike Hampton, when Hampton was a year from free agency, and once traded Carl Everett, when Everett was coming off a 25-homer, 108-RBI year in 1999.
"So this is not something that's foreign to this franchise," he said. "Yet we've always been able to come up with a formula to put a quality product on the field. I just hope people will have some confidence in our ability to continue doing that."
WHY SO FAST?
It might look as if the Astros couldn't wait to find Wagner a new address because of his two-thumbs-down review of Astros ownership in the final week of the season. But Hunsicker says Wagner actually knew, before he ever opened his mouth, that he was probably going to be traded this winter.
So the Division Series had barely begun when Hunsicker began making calls to a few clubs he envisioned as being interested in a closer and able to take on Wagner's paycheck.
The Phillies were one of those teams. And once they got that call, it was the Phillies -- not the Astros -- who pushed the envelope.
A few days after their initial conversation, the Phillies gathered most of their major decision-makers in Florida for organizational meetings. They spent a couple of days trying to decide on their biggest offseason need -- closer or No. 1 starter. By the time they got back on the plane, Wagner was the name at the top of their chalk board.
Over the next week, Wade estimates, he and Hunsicker swapped "eight or nine phone calls." Then, a week and a half ago, Wade flew to Houston for a memorial service -- but used the occasion to meet with Hunsicker and Astros president Tal Smith in person, "just to show how serious our interest was."
"We met for about an hour," Wade said. "But it was actually all night, because I stayed overnight at Tal Smith's house. Then we met the next morning in Tal's library -- which, by the way, is not located on Tal's Hill."
When he left that meeting, however, Wade said he was convinced this deal "wasn't going to happen, because of the names involved. I got a little stubborn on a couple of names."
But once he became convinced that balking on Buchholz would be a deal-breaker, Wade relented. They'd already agreed by that point on Duckworth. It then took another day or so before they settled on Astacio from a group of about eight more prospects. And by 3:30 Friday afternoon, this trade was essentially done.
Clearing money was enough of a priority for the Astros that they were willing to move this fast. But it was the Phillies who were determined to get their biggest offseason objective cleared off the board before the free-agent negotiating period had even begun.
"The Astros were very respectful and responsive, from the standpoint of me saying, I need to know now," Wade said. "I said, 'We can't go forward, left or right, with the closer or anything else, until we know if we're taking on an $8-million closer or, potentially, a $17-million closer. It's sort of a big deal.' Fortunately, they were willing to move at the same pace."
So now what?
For the Astros, this doesn't solve all their "flexibility" problems. Between arbitration and long-term contracts, they have a number of players -- Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Hidalgo, Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and their next closer, Octavio Dotel -- in line for significant raises.
So they'll continue to look for ways to pare dollars, while exploring the market for the likes of Pettitte, other veteran starters and a proven set-up man.
The Phillies, meanwhile, will turn their attention to the rest of their pitching staff.
Wade says the Phillies still have money to pay a top-of-the-rotation starter. But the reality is, they probably won't be able to reel one in.
They looked into trading for Javier Vazquez and Curt Schilling, and apparently concluded the price tag was too steep -- steeper than what they gave up for Wagner, at least. They also have interest in bringing back Kevin Millwood, but Millwood seems inclined to move on.
So the biggest benefit, from their end, of wrapping up the Wagner trade so fast was that "it allows us not to have to be pedal-to-the-metal on everyone else," Wade said. "It gives us a chance to see how the marketplace develops on starting pitchers, and on the rest of the bullpen."
They've already begun working on re-signing free-agent set-up men Terry Adams and Dan Plesac. They're ready to drop lines in the water on just about every other set-up man on the market. And they'll take their time on adding one more starter, in the hope they can reenact last winter's miracle, when Millwood abruptly fell into their laps one shocking day in December.
But no matter what happens on those other fronts, the Phillies' offseason is already a success. A week ago, they needed a closer more than David Wells needed a salad bar. Now, one stunning trade later, they've guaranteed themselves of at least one full season of not having to watch their manager spend every ninth inning turning redder than his cap.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Closer Billy Wagner could be the missing piece that completes the Phillies' championship puzzle.