Astros deal two minor-leaguers for Huff

Updated: July 13, 2006, 10:57 AM ET
Associated Press

HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros acquired third baseman Aubrey Huff from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for two minor league prospects Wednesday, hoping the Texan can help revive the Astros' struggling offense.

Olney's take on trade
The Astros needed a bat and they got a good offensive option in Aubrey Huff, a left-handed hitter who has the ability to spray the ball to the opposite field, and take advantage of the box seats down the left field line in Houston's home park. This will give Houston manager Phil Garner another player he can use to mix and match his lineup, because Huff can play third -- he's been solid if unspectacular there this year -- and first and either left or right field.

In return for Huff, the Devil Rays did well to get a plus arm for Huff -- right-handed pitcher Mitch Talbot, who was 6-4 with a 3.39 ERA in Double-A this year, striking out 96 and walking only 29 in 90 1/3 innings. In addition, the Rays got a Double-A shortstop, Ben Zobrist, who could give them a good fallback candidate if Julio Lugo is traded and if top prospect B.J. Upton demonstrates that he can't play shortstop in the big leagues.

This deal could affect Upton down the road. With Huff now moved, the Rays have an opening in their infield that Upton could fill, one way or the other. Either Lugo could be moved around as a utility player, or perhaps Upton could be given a shot at third base, something that former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella tried a couple of years ago. Upton has 28 errors at shortstop this year, but his primary weakness at the position, scouts say, is that he lays back on grounders too much, leaving himself too little time to complete a play, and in exchanges around the second base bag. Upton has good range, and by playing third base, he naturally would have more time to field a ball and complete a play.

The Astros, who also got some cash in the deal, are tied for last in the National League in batting average.

"This will give us an offense boost which we sorely need," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said.

The 30-year-old Huff, who went to high school and junior college in Texas, hit .283 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 63 games for the Devil Rays this season. He has been the subject of trade speculation each of the past three years.

In his sixth major league season, Huff has a career average of .287 with 128 home runs and 449 RBI.

Houston will pay $1.4 million of the $3 million that remains on the final year of Huff's contract. Tampa Bay will pay the rest, Purpura said. The Devil Rays get right-hander Mitch Talbot and infielder Ben Zobrist from the Astros' system. Both players will report to Double-A Montgomery.

Huff is Tampa Bay's career leader in games (798), at-bats (3,016), runs (399), hits (868), doubles (173), home runs (128), extra-base hits (307) and RBI (449). He's hit 20 or more home runs four times and is one of five left-handed hitters -- along with David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado, Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu -- to average 100-plus RBI the past three seasons.

Purpura said getting Huff was a "great first step" in making a push during the second half of the season.

"We're certainly within striking distance if we play better baseball," he said.

Houston, the reigning NL champions, is just 7-13 since June 18. But the Astros are coming out of the All-Star break in better shape than last year, when they were 44-43 and 11½ games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. This year they are only six games back of the Cardinals.

To make room for Huff, Houston will send outfielder Jason Lane to Triple-A Round Rock. Lane has struggled in the Astros lineup, batting only .205 this season.

Purpura said Huff's arrival could also affect third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who has also struggled at the plate. Besides third base, Huff has also played first base and the outfield.

"Obviously it will cut into [Ensberg's] playing time," he said. "We're in a position where we have to start moving forward. We can't give bats to players because they have been in that spot before. We have to get production and performance out of our players."

Law: Good trade for both
In their trade with the Devil Rays, the Astros got a bat, and while it's not the major power threat they have needed for about two years now, they did need a left-handed hitter for the middle of their lineup. And Aubrey Huff is about as good a fit as they were going to find this summer.

Tampa Bay adds two depth prospects to its farm system, which is critical, since that's the type of prospect they failed to add through years of high-risk/high-ceiling drafting that left them with a few star-caliber prospects but an extremely thin system beyond that.

• For more of Keith Law's analysis, click here .

The last-place Devil Rays have made two major trades in the past two weeks, with both deals making one of the youngest rosters in the majors even younger.

On June 27, Tampa Bay sent left-handed pitcher Mark Hendrickson, catcher Toby Hall and cash to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for starting pitcher Jae Seo and catcher Dioner Navarro.

"While there are positives we can take away from the improvement we made during the first half, to accept where we are is to accept mediocrity," Devil Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "Our goal is to build a competitive team that we can sustain."

The last-place Devil Rays (39-50) played .123 percentage points better than a year ago prior to the All-Star break -- the third-best improvement in the majors behind the Detroit Tigers and the Colorado Rockies.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press