The Fatman Cometh?

added 5/24/2001 by Todd Brody

In 1998, the Astros pulled off a surprising trade at the deadline, picking up Randy Johnson in exchange for three minor league players. Despite the fact that the Johnson was a one-year rental, the Astros did not win the World Series that year, and Freddy Garcia and John Halama (the two pitchers the Astros sent to the Mariners in exchange) have turned out to be very good pitchers, I think that most people would say that the deal was a smart move for the Astros. And I agree. Much of the criticism focused around any trade for David Wells is that he is no Randy Johnson. Well, few players are. But just because he is not the "Big Unit" doesn't mean that trading prospects for Wells would be a bad idea.

It is important to note the differences between a trade for Wells and the trade for Randy Johnson in 1998: (1) Unlike Johnson, Wells is not a one-year rental. Wells is signed through next year, he wants his option exercised, and he does not want to be traded again; (2) Wells would be coming to the Astros at an earlier point in the season than Johnson; and (3) the Astros starting rotation is in shambles right now. Only Wade Miller is pitching well on a consistent basis. To contrast, in 1998, the Astros had three very good starting pitchers in Reynolds, Hampton, and Lima. Even Sean Bergman and Pete Schourek pitched well for the Astros at the bottom part of the rotation.

The similarities are also very important. Both the 2001 and 1998 Astros are contenders. Maybe the last home-stand has clouded our vision, but this division is still wide open. Any team could take the Central -- including the Astros. And more important, any team could take the National League pennant. There is not one team in the entire league that is such a dominant favorite to win this year. In 1998, the Astros were facing tough competition from the Cubs when they made the deal to get Randy Johnson. In 2001, there are four teams that are competing for the division.

They way I look at it, if the Astros don't win now, it is going to be a couple of years before the team is really competitive again. Craig Biggio is on the way down. Jeff Bagwell may also be on the way down. Moises Alou is probably gone after this season. Sure the Astros have a lot of good young players. But I think that it will take a couple of years before we really see results from them on a consistent basis.

So how do the Astros make themselves competitive this year? In my mind, the only thing that needs fixing is the rotation. The Astros have a great lineup. The bullpen has been solid. But the rotation is a mess. Jose Lima has to go. Kent Bottenfield has to go. While Scott Elarton has not been pitching well, and Shane Reynolds has been inconsistent, I think that they can stay in the rotation. So who replaces Lima and Bottenfield. One option is to move Roy Oswalt and Octavio Dotel into the rotation. Good move, but then you kill the bullpen. No, I think that the answer is to trade for a pitcher (David Wells), and move Tony McKnight back up from AAA, where he is pitching well. McKnight, as you will remember, was the Astros most consistent pitcher in the stretch last year. Why he was not in the rotation at the end of the spring is still unclear to me. I do not believe that Tim Redding or any other pitcher in the minors is ready to make the jump to the major leagues right now. Consequently, I am not including them in the equation.

If the Astros make these moves, the bullpen will remain strong, while the rotation dramatically will be improved. David Wells is not the messiah. But he is the best pitcher avaiable right now. He is probably going to be the best pitcher available all season. I'm sorry, but Sidney Ponson and Albie Lopez just don't do it for me. Wells is having a good season. Not a great season, but a good season. But he is also coming from a really bad situation. The White Sox, despite great expectations are absolutely sucking it up and Wells has gotten into fights with Frank Thomas and others. I wouldn't be surprised if Wells really turns it if he comes to Houston, a team in the middle of the playoff hunt.

So what will it cost to bring Wells to Houston? This is the million dollar question. Drayton said today that it would cost 2 or 3 really good minor league prospects. Of that we can be sure. Look, there are certain top prospects who the Astros certainly would not trade. Oswalt will not be traded. Redding will not be traded. A lot of people really like Brad Lidge. Clearly, the Astros are going to have to trade something good. I would expect that either Wilfredo Rodriguez or Carlos Hernandez will be traded. McKnight may be traded. If I were the Astros, I would try to include Chris Truby in the deal (the Sox really need a third-baseman) and/or Jose Lima. Its hard to say what the Astros will have to give up to get Wells for two years. I believe that the Astros can easily trade several minor league pitchers without mortagaging the future. When you have Miller, Oswalt, Elarton, and maybe Dotel in the rotation for 2002, how many more young pitchers do you need?

As in 1998, the Astros are at the cusp and David Wells might be the pitcher who can turn it around for the team. Wells has always been a money pitcher in important games. The Astros certainly could use a pitcher like that. The Astros have to move fast, however, because there are many teams who would like to have Wells. Moreover, the Astros can't fall to far out of first. I think that it is time for the Astros to make the deal.

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