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On Monday, The Phillies and Astros kicked off what should be an interesting off-season by making a four-player deal. The Astros swapped long-time closer Billy Wagner for three young pitchers, the most accomplished of them Brandon Duckworth.

My knee-jerk reaction was that the Astros had done well for themselves. Wagner is a great closer, but he’s a closer, and as such is limited in what he contributes to a team. The ‘Stros have Octavio Dotel to replace those innings, and an assortment of arms to replace Dotel’s workload. Moreover, I’m high on Duckworth, even after his second straight disappointing season. The deal allows the Astros to take the $8 million they had committed to Wagner and use it on a #3 starter, something they’d been playing without the last couple of years. Andy Pettitte is the likely target. A rotation of Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, Pettitte (or another free agent), Duckworth and Jeriome Robertson would be one of the better ones in the NL.

The more I thought about it, though, I didn’t mind the deal from the Phillies’ standpoint. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think teams need to pay $8-9 million for 65 ninth innings as a rule. Closers emerge every season from strange places, the most recent examples being the Cubs’ Joe Borowski, the Giants’ Tim Worrell and the Mariners’ Shigetoshi Hasegawa. All of those teams had success in 2003 while plugging guys into the closer role who never would have been considered capital-C closers on March 15.

Separate the role from the pitcher for a second, though. Billy Wagner is one of the top relievers in the game. Since missing most of the 2000 season to elbow surgery, Wagner has ERAs of 2.73, 2.52 and 1.78, and has struck out 272 men in 223 2/3 innings. He’s ranked 25th, ninth and third in the majors in ARP in those three seasons. Closers are overvalued as a class, but Wagner is one who comes close to being worth his salary because he is a dominant pitcher every single year.

There is value in certainty, and that’s what the Phillies paid for in this deal. I agree that in most cases, teams should use their resources on more important areas of the team, and find their closers through trial and error. The Phillies were going to spend money on the bullpen, however, because they perceived it–and in particular, their closer–to be one of their critical weaknesses. Given that, acquiring Billy Wagner is one of the best decisions they could have made. Only Keith Foulke combines Wagner’s availability and performance record, and there’s no guarantee that the Phillies would have been able to sign him. Spending $8 million and three arms on Billy Wagner is a much better solution than overpaying for Ugueth Urbina or someone like him.

The Phillies, moving into a new ballpark in 2004, have the money to spend. Their eight starting players are set, as are their top three starters, leaving only the bullpen as a need to be addressed. While Duckworth has potential, he was only in line to be their #4 guy at best, and it’s an open question whether he would have gotten himself established under Larry Bowa. While the Phillies didn’t make the best trade they could have made, because they won’t maximize the value of the pitcher they received, they’re a better team today for the deal and are less likely to make an $8 million mistake.

The trade helps both teams, and that’s the best compliment you can pay the general managers involved.

The two prospects going back to the Astros in the deal are just arms. Taylor Buchholz has good command and is just 22, but was worked hard at ages 19 and 20 and saw his strikeout rate slide at Double-A in 2003. I’d be surprised to see him in Houston before 2005, and am quite concerned about all the innings he threw in 2001 (176 2/3 in the Sally League) and 2002 (181 2/3 in the Florida State and Eastern Leagues). Ezequiel Astacio struck out 83 men in 147 2/3 innings as a 23-year-old in the Florida State League, so this may be the last anyone ever hears of him.

Manny

I didn’t write about the Manny Ramirez mess, as the story broke after I’d submitted last week’s column. Suffice to say that I think everyone acted rationally. Theo Epstein made a ballsy move in placing Ramirez on irrevocable waivers, and his 29 counterparts made a logical decision in passing on a claim.

Despite the speculation that the Yankees would be a player, picking up Ramirez would have made no baseball sense for them. The Yankees need to address their up-the-middle defense and their rotation, and adding Ramirez would have done neither (in fact, it would have set the defensive problem in stone). Claiming Ramirez also would have freed the Red Sox to use that $20 million in other ways.

The key thing here, and in discussions of the Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi contracts, is recognizing that there’s a huge dividing line between 2001 and 2002. Contracts signed prior to that line bear little resemblance to ones signed after, and the $100 million that Ramirez will make from 2004-08 will buy a lot more in the current market than one left fielder, no matter how good he is.

That’s the situation the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers face. It’s not that the contracts were bad (well, maybe Giambi’s was, but that’s a different column), or that the players aren’t producing value for the money. It’s that the context in which those contracts now exist is completely different from the one in which they were signed. The 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement is doing exactly what it was designed to do: tamp down the top end of the salary scale by increasing the marginal cost (through the luxury tax) and decreasing the marginal value (through increased revenue sharing) of payroll expenditures. That means the three players who signed mega-deals in the previous era have little chance of being worth their salaries, even as they provide exactly the kind of production they were expected to provide.

Manny Ramirez’s appearance on the waiver wire is a natural outgrowth of that. While it’s easy to read any number of personal issues into it, the fact is the move was a concession to the idea that the 2002 CBA changed the rules. Ramirez’s contract will continue to be available to any taker not because Ramirez doesn’t run out ground balls, but because the contract stopped making sense on August 30, 2002.