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Trade Talk: Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, Chris Burke, Mark Prior and Lance Berkman

I disappeared to California for a few days because I expected things to slow down for a bit. Okay, I didn’t really expect that, but damn it, I needed some time away from this god-awful city and I was hoping things would be quiet for a bit. After all, right before I left, the Astros had made a huge trade for Miguel Tejada (who soon might not be so physically large) and the Mitchell Report had been released (which is why Tejada might not be so huge come spring training).

Perfect time for a break.

Except that Ed Wade, despite having just been burned on the Tejada trade, wouldn’t quit. Imagine my shock checking into my San Francisco hotel room on Friday, flipping on ESPN, and discovering that the Astros had just acquired All-Star closer Jose Valverde from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

There are several things that bug me about this trade. But first, here’s the one thing I like.

Chris Burke is gone. This guy’s Houston career was destroyed by Craig Biggio’s quest for 3,000 hits. And it definitely wasn’t helped by the team shoving him into centerfield even though he couldn’t play centerfield. The guy’s major league career is probably over, but if there’s anyone who needed a change of scenery more than Brad Lidge, it’s Chris Burke. So I wish him the best of luck.

Now for the things that bug me.

Number one: why? Why this all-consuming quest for a closer? The Astros have one legitimate starting pitcher, Roy Oswalt. After that, the rotation is one huge question mark. A closer is the most useless player on the roster if there are no leads to save. And when the rotation consists of guys like Wandy Rodriguez, Woody Williams, Chris Sampson and Brandon Backe, there might not be much call for a closer.

Think about it. As much as I bitched about Lidge last season, just what difference would a healthy Lidge have made to the 2007 Astros? The team finished 73-89 not because of all of Lidge’s blown saves, but because the starting pitching was awful. Mariano Rivera would not be able to turn the Tampa Bay Rays into a contender, and Valverde isn’t going to be able to do that to the Astros.

Besides, the D-Backs traded Valverde for Chris Burke and Chad Qualls. This all leads me to wonder if whether there is something wrong with Valverde.

It seems the D-Backs get it, while the Astros don’t. On the same day the D-Backs traded Valverde, they acquired Dan Haren, one of the best young starters in the majors, from the Oakland A’s. So while the ‘Stros have been dealing away starters this off-season (Matt Albers and Troy Patton, anyone?) the D-Backs, who nearly made the World Series last season, are trying to get more starting pitching.

And why do teams overpay for the likes of Gil Meche and Barry Zito? Because of staring pitching. Why did the Braves dominate the National League for over a decade? Hint: it wasn’t the bullpen. It was a rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. The Yankees have Mariano Rivera, one of the greatest closers in the history of the baseball, but the Yankees are desperately trying to acquire Twins ace Johan Santana. And the Yankees didn’t take off last season until the rotation settled down.

So the Astros might a have a good closer, but without starting pitching, Valverde is useless.

(In a related side note: the word on the grapevine is the Astros are hot for Mark Prior. I like this possible move. Sure, Prior is an injury waiting to happen. But when the guy is healthy, he’s one of the best clutch pitchers in baseball. He’ll also push for Roy Oswalt for the role of staff ace. So if the Astros can ink Prior to a heavily incentive laden contract, I say go for it.)

But the other thing that bugs me about the trade is not so much the trade, but Lance Berkman’s reaction to the trade. Apparently, Lance is upset because all of Ed Wade’s moves are destroying team chemistry. Yeah, you wouldn’t want to destroy the chemistry of the 2007 Astros juggernaut. But it also appears, if the crack staff at the Chron is to be believed, that the biggest threat to team chemistry isn’t Ed Wade’s penchant for trades, but is instead Lance Berkman.

It’s time for Berkman to start playing the team leader, to start taking over the role held for so long by Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell’s gone, and this club needs a leader. And a leader doesn’t whine because his friend’s been traded. A leader’s more concerned with the team getting better.

Oh well, maybe Hunter Pence will step up and take on that role this year. – John Royal

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