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Astros: Reviewing the 2003 Billy Wagner trade with Phillies

CHICAGO - MAY 31: Pitcher Billy Wagner #13 of the Houston Astros throws a pitch during the MLB game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois on May 31, 2002. The Astros defeated the Cubs 4-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - MAY 31: Pitcher Billy Wagner #13 of the Houston Astros throws a pitch during the MLB game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois on May 31, 2002. The Astros defeated the Cubs 4-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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We take a look back at the infamous 2003 trade in which the Houston Astros showed Billy Wagner the door.

There are plenty of loathsome trades in the history of the Houston Astros franchise, but this is one of the worst. Fans pretty much have come to a consensus that Billy Wagner was the best relief pitcher to ever wear the Astros uniform, and the club traded him away for basically nothing.

Wagner had established himself as one of the best closers in the game. The flamethrowing left-hander, who taught himself to throw left-handed after sustaining injuries to his right arm as a child, had notched 225 saves with a 2.53 ERA in nine seasons with Houston. He’d made three All-Star teams and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 1999. His performance on the mound wasn’t an issue at all.

Following the 2003 season, which was the second straight year the club had failed to make the playoffs, Wagner was outspoken in a way that management didn’t like. He was critical of the franchise, believing it to have failed to put together a winning team. That didn’t sit well with the higher-ups, so they labeled him a malcontent and ran him out of town.

This would be one thing if the trade had been worthwhile, but that ended up not being the case. Fans are still up in arms about the Houston Texans trading star receiver DeAndre Hopkins for pennies on the dollar, all because coach/GM/emperor Bill O’Brien apparently had issues with him. This trade was the Astros’ version of that.

So on Nov. 3, 2003, the Astros traded Wagner to the Phillies in exchange for pitchers Ezequiel Astacio, Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth. Wagner was 32 at the time, so one could say he was reaching the end of his prime. But one look at his career numbers shows his prime never really ended, and the players the club got in return never actually had a prime.

What the Astros Gave Up

The Phillies had Wagner under contract for two seasons, and he was his typical self. His 2004 season was shortened by injury, but he still notched 21 saves with a 2.42 ERA in 45 appearances. He rebounded to put up one of his best seasons in 2005, tallying 38 saves with a 1.51 ERA and leading the majors with 70 games finished.

Wagner hit free agency after 2005 and signed a four-year deal with the Mets. He saved 101 games for them before hitting the shelf for Tommy John surgery during his third season in Queens. He returned late in the 2009 season and was traded to the Red Sox shortly thereafter.

A free agent again, Wagner signed up for one final season with the Atlanta Braves. At age 38, he was as dominant as ever, posting a career-best 1.43 ERA and saving 37 games, reaching the 400-save mark for his career. He retired at the top of his game and seemingly with no regrets, which is about the best a player can ask for.

What the Astros Got

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Astacio made his major league debut with the Astros in 2005. The right-hander went 3-6 with a 5.67 ERA in 14 starts and eight relief appearances. He pitched 5.2 innings of relief in 2006, allowing seven earned runs, and that would conclude his major league career. In total, he worked to a 6.02 ERA in 86.2 innings for the club.

Buchholz would make his big league debut in 2006, but that was his only year with the club. He went 6-10 with a 5.89 ERA in 19 starts and three relief appearances totaling 113 innings. The Astros sent him to Colorado in the Jason Jennings trade in Dec. 2006, which didn’t work out so well for the club either.

Duckworth had already spent parts of three seasons in the majors and compiled a 4.87 ERA in 325 innings for the Phillies. He spent two seasons with the Astros and was downright terrible, working to an 8.08 ERA in eight starts and 18 relief appearances totaling 55.2 innings. He left via free agency after 2005.

The Verdict

This one’s pretty easy to grade as an F for the Astros. None of the three players they received in the trade provided any positive value for the club. In terms of Baseball-Reference’s WAR (wins above replacement) stat, Astacio was worth -1.2 WAR, Buchholz totaled -0.9 WAR, and Duckworth provided -1.3 WAR.

Wagner, on the other hand, provided 3.9 WAR to the Phillies in what amounted to a little over one and a half seasons, thanks to his injury-shortened 2004. In return, the Astros got -3.4 WAR combined from the three pitchers they received. Not exactly a good deal.

The club’s management let its collective emotions drive it into making a bad trade. Maybe Wagner did need a change of scenery, but extracting fair value in a trade was still something the front office should have done. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way, and this will always be viewed as one of the worst trades in club history.

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