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Astros' Top 5 Winter Meetings moves

@brianmctaggart
December 7, 2020

HOUSTON -- The Astros haven’t made a huge splash at the Winter Meetings in quite some time, and they will have to wait at least one more year after this year’s Winter Meetings, scheduled to take place in Dallas, were cancelled as an in-person event because of the coronavirus. Still,

HOUSTON -- The Astros haven’t made a huge splash at the Winter Meetings in quite some time, and they will have to wait at least one more year after this year’s Winter Meetings, scheduled to take place in Dallas, were cancelled as an in-person event because of the coronavirus.

Still, the Astros have had their share of impact moves at baseball’s annual swap meet -- and not all of them have been for the better. So let’s take a look at the biggest Winter Meetings transactions in Astros history:

1. Dec. 10, 1982: Astros acquire RHP Mike Scott from the Mets for IF Danny Heep

Not much was written about this trade when it happened at the 1982 Winter Meetings in Hawaii, but the Astros saying “Aloha” to Scott wound up being a move that changed a franchise.

Heep, a native Texan, was a struggling reserve player for Houston, while Scott was a fledgling starter who had posted a 5.14 ERA with the Mets in 1982. Scott was added as rotation depth, but eventually became the ace of the staff. But it wasn’t until Astros general manager Al Rosen suggested he meet with Tigers pitching coach Roger Craig that Scott’s career took off.

After going 5-11 with a 4.68 ERA for the Astros in 1984, Scott sought out Craig that winter to learn how to throw the split-fingered fastball. The results were immediate. Scott went 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA in 1985 and quickly became a star. He went 18-10 and led the National League in ERA (2.22), shutouts (five), innings pitched (275 1/3), and strikeouts (306) in 1986 en route to the NL Cy Young Award.

He sewed up the award when he pitched a no-hitter to clinch the NL West title against the Giants on Sept. 25 in the Astrodome. Allegations that Scott was scuffing the baseball to give him an advantage followed Scott throughout that season, with Craig -- then the manager of the Giants -- leading the charge.

Scott and the Astros steadfastly denied the balls were being doctored and nothing was proven.

“It was tough, annoying,” Astros manager Hal Lanier said, “especially when we played the Giants. Roger Craig made a big, big thing about it. There were other clubs also. The Cubs made a big deal about it. They had cameras on him throughout the games every time he started. The Mets during the playoffs were keeping baseballs. Mike and I talked and I said, 'Mike, just go out there and do what you’re doing, what you’ve done all year.'”

Scott was just as dominant in the postseason, beating the Mets twice in the 1986 NL Championship Series before being denied a chance to finish them off in Game 7, as the Mets rallied to win Game 6 in 16 innings. Scott was so dominant that he was named the Most Valuable Player of the NLCS despite the Astros losing the series.

Scott won 110 games in nine seasons with the Astros, winning 20 games in 1989 and making the All-Star Game for the third time. The Astros retired his No. 33 in 1992.

“Sometimes I felt like I could drop my glove by my side and watch him pitch,” first baseman Glenn Davis said. “I didn’t have to get ready because he was going to dominate. For the most part, it was art in motion. He was just brilliant.”

2. Nov. 29, 1971: Astros send 2B Joe Morgan, OF Ed Armbrister, RHP Jack Billingham, CF Cesar Geronimo and IF Denis Menke to the Reds for IF Tommy Helms, 1B Lee May and IF/OF Jimmy Stewart

Spec Richardson, who served as Astros general manager from 1967-75, made some of the worst trades in the history of the franchise, and dealing a young star named Joe Morgan to the Reds at the Winter Meetings in Phoenix is at the top of the list.

Morgan was signed as an amateur free agent by the Colt .45s after the 1962 season and played nine years in Houston before the infamous trade to the Reds. Morgan was a two-time All-Star in his first stint in Houston but became a superstar in his eight years in Cincinnati, hitting .288 with 152 homers, 612 RBIs and 406 steals for the Reds. He was an All-Star in all eight seasons in Cincinnati, was named NL MVP in 1975 and 1976 (the two seasons the Reds won the World Series) and won five Gold Gloves.

Morgan signed with the Astros prior to the 1980 season and hit .243 in 141 games while helping Houston reach the playoffs for the first time by winning the NL West. Years later, Morgan couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had the Astros been more patient in the 1960s and waited for their young players, like Morgan and Rusty Staub, to mature.

“Maybe we would have won a championship here instead of me winning two in Cincinnati,” he said.

3. Dec. 10, 1996: Astros trade RHP Doug Brocail, OF Brian Hunter, RHP Todd Jones, IF Orlando Miller and cash to the Tigers for C Brad Ausmus, RHP Jose Lima, LHP Trever Miller, IF Daryle Ward and LHP C.J. Nitkowski

There were a lot of recognizable names in this deal, but the centerpiece for the Astros was Ausmus. With the club on the upswing behind young starters like Mike Hampton, Darryl Kile and Shane Reynolds, the Astros needed a solid catcher and tabbed Ausmus, who wound up playing 10 years in Houston and catching more games than any player in club history.

“The team had been losing in rebuilding, and our attendance was down, and our revenue was down, and we didn’t have money to get a free-agent pitcher, and whatever was out there was very expensive,” said Larry Dierker, who managed the club from 1997-01. “We decided we had to improve our pitching with the pitchers we had, and the decision we made was to try to get the best catcher we could get and see if by having a better catcher, we could improve the whole pitching staff. We went out and got Brad Ausmus. I would say that strategy worked.”

Ausmus initially played two seasons in Houston before he was traded back to the Tigers on Jan. 14, 1999. After two more seasons in Detroit, the Astros brought him back in another trade with the Tigers at the 2000 Winter Meetings. He stayed eight more years (2001-08) and guided a talented pitching staff led by Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to the World Series in 2005.

“I was happy about it,” Ausmus said of his return to Houston. “I had enjoyed my first two years there. I knew a lot of the players, had some good friends with the Astros and was really excited about the move back.”

An unheralded name in the 1996 trade with Detroit was Lima, who posted a 6.24 ERA in 57 games (20 starts) with the Tigers from 1994-96 and certainly gave no indication of the brief success he was going to have in Houston. He pitched in the bullpen for the Astros in 1997 (and not very well) before putting up a pair of improbable seasons, going 16-8 with a 3.70 ERA in 1998 and 21-10 with a 3.58 ERA in 1999 while making the NL All-Star team and becoming a fan favorite.

“He was good energy,” Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio said. “He was positive energy and he was good for the team and he was good for the city.

4. Dec. 10, 1993: Astros acquire LHP Mike Hampton and OF Mike Felder from the Mariners for OF Eric Anthony

Bob Watson had been on the job as general manager of the Astros for only two months when he pulled off a trade that would help them break their playoff drought a few years later by landing Hampton.

Hampton had posted a 9.53 ERA in 13 games in his Major League debut in 1993 with the Mariners, who were seeking some outfield help. The Astros, meanwhile, were adding young talent to go along with an emerging core led by Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Kile and Luis Gonzalez and hit the jackpot with Hampton.

Hampton won 76 games in seven seasons in Houston, going 15-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 1997. He was on the mound when the Astros clinched the NL Central title that year, breaking an 11-year playoff drought. Hampton went 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA in 1999 and made the All-Star team as the Astros won their third consecutive NL Central title. He finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

Following that season, Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker dealt Hampton to the Mets, and the lefty cashed in big time a year later with a $105 million deal with the Colorado Rockies.

“I was here in ’97 and ’98, and ’98 to me was the year he really turned it around,” Ausmus said. “He kind of got off to a mediocre start and really took off the last half of the season and became one of the better lefties in the game. He’s one of my favorite pitchers I ever caught and one of the better teammates I’ve been around."

5. Dec. 4, 1968: Astros send LHP Mike Cuellar and IF Enzo Hernandez to the Orioles for 1B/OF Curt Blefary

Richardson dealt away a future ace by sending Cuellar to the Orioles at the 1968 Winter Meetings at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, getting little in return.

Cuellar, a 31-year-old who won 16 games and made the All-Star team in 1967, took his career to a higher lever in Baltimore. He won 143 games in eight seasons with the Orioles, including four seasons of at least 20 wins. He won the 1969 AL Cy Young Award after going 23-11 with a 2.38 ERA and he went 24-8 with a 3.48 ERA in 1970, when the Orioles won the World Series.

Blefary, meanwhile, played one season in Houston before being traded to the Yankees for Joe Pepitone, who was a bust in Houston.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.