We finally have returned from a 4-day drunken stint in Pittsburgh for the All-Star game. Unfortunately we stayed in the same hotel as Chris Berman and the rest of the ESPN crew, which meant that all women in leather pants were already spoken for at the hotel bar. The entire experience was somewhat surreal right down to being informed of the Aubrey Huff trade by none other than former Mets general manager Steve Phillips while waiting in line to check out of the hotel (more on that in a moment). There is no surprise that Huff was traded. In fact the Astros were one of the logical choices. Huff is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and will likely command in the neighborhood of his current $7.3 million salary. In return, the Rays received SS Ben Zobrist, and RHP Mitch Talbot. Talbot, 22, is a former 2nd round draft choice (2002) of Houston. In his first three professional seasons he has been consistent, but unimpressive with a career ERA of 3.90 in 66 career starts with 6.6 Ks per 9 innings and a WHIP of 1.30. He has been more dominating this season going 6-4 with a 3.39 ERA in 17 starts with 96 strikeouts in 90.1 innings. The key to the trade appears to be Zobrist. Zobrist, 25, was a 6th round pick in the 2004 draft. This season in AA, he is hitting .327-3-30 with a very impressive 55 to 46 strikeout to walk ratio and a .434 OBP. A couple of weeks ago we had commented on the recent power surge of Carl Crawford and noted that C. C. was more suited to be hitting in the #3 spot in the lineup. The problem was that the Devil Rays did not have a current member or a prospect that looked to be an ideal #2 hitter. Zobrist could be that player.
Finally, the Devil Rays also swallowed about half of Huff’s remaining salary for the 2006 season. For a team that clearly does not have the financial resources of other franchises, this move was a bit surprising, yet pleasing. This is the second time this season the front office has included cash in a deal, having sent $1 million to the Dodgers in the Hendrickson-Hall trade. This marks a clear shift in the team’s philosophy that they are willing to spend money to improve the club. The other interesting development in this trade was timing. It is impossible to know how many teams had made offers for Huff, but clearly the Rays jumped on the first offer that was deemed good for the team. There have been rumblings that the team could have received more (Steve Phillips had not even heard of the prospects and he is a former GM), but this quick trigger could prove a good move for the team in the future. In particular, as the team looks to move Julio Lugo, any team that has Lugo targeted will be more likely to approach with their best offers early knowing that Tampa will not hesitate to accept a different offer.
In a related story. The long-anticipated move of B. J. Upton to a new position has finally occurred, as he will begin the second half of the season as the new third baseman for the Durham Bulls. Team executives have emphasized that the move is not permanent yet and that the team still looks at Upton as their future SS. However, the move clearly indicates that the team wants Upton in the majors sooner rather than later and the trade of Huff leaves an open spot in the infield. In fact, if Upton takes to his new position quickly, we could see B. J. in a Devil Ray uniform in the next month. If and when Lugo is traded, Upton will most likely get a chance to play both third base and shortstop in the last 2 months of the season.
So what is the immediate impact of this trade on the major league roster for the Devil Rays? As of this afternoon, the team has not indicated who will replace Huff on the roster. The logical choice is Kevin Witt. Witt leads the International League with 23 home runs and on Wednesday night, led the IL All-Stars to victory by going 3-3 with a 2-run home run and an RBI double. Witt, 30, has played parts of four seasons in the major leagues with three different teams. Most recently he played 93 games with the Detroit Tigers in 2003 hitting .263-10-26. He is a career .249 hitter with 13 home runs in 127 games. Witt can immediately become the starting first baseman with Ty Wiggington moving to third base until Upton is deemed ready.