After what seems like a year and a half of rumors, Aubrey Huff was finally traded today. The Devil Rays all-time leader in just about every hitting category will get a taste of his first pennant race, going to the Houston Astros for two Double A players, SS Ben Zobrist and P Mitch Talbot.
The Astros are only 3.5 games out of the wild card at the All-Star break, despite the fourth fewest runs scored in the National League. Acquiring a bat was a major priority, and Huff will move straight into the right field spot that Jason Lane had been occupying. Four of the eight starting position players for the Astros had negative VORPs in the first half: Lane (-3.7), Willy Tavarez (-6.2), Adam Everett (-7.5) and Brad Ausmus (-8.1). So while Lane hasn't been the worst hitter on the team, he was in the lineup for his bat, unlike the other four. Tavarez's speed is necessary in Minute Maid Park's vast outfield, Ausmus is the unofficial team captain, and Everett has probably surpassed Andruw Jones as the best defensive player in basball, coming in an Ozzie Smith-esque 21 runs above replacement in the first half. So Lane was the obvious choice to go. Lane's season has certainly been a disappointment. Following what appeared to be a breakout, Lane had serious trouble making contant, walking, striking out, or getting hit by a pitch in 94 of his 224 plate appearances.
At first glance, Huff seems to have fallen off his 2002-04 peak, but upon closer look, he may be able to play near that level. After his terrible slump througout 2005, Huff started slowly, going 4 for 22 before going to the DL. On June 9th, Huff was still struggling badly, hitting .178/.272/.264 with only two home runs. In the month since, he's hit .416 with six homers. It's possible that this run has been a fluke, and Huff won't be the same player he was two years ago, but even 2005 Aubrey Huff, as mediocre as it was, will be an improvement over 2006 Jason Lane.
Will this get the Astros back to the playoffs? Alone, of course not. If Clemens can pitch like a #2, if Pettitte can come back to form, if Ensberg snaps out of his slump, and if Everett and Tavarez start providing any offense at all, then this move could be what puts them over the top. You can make a strong case that, as things stand, the Astros have the third best team, top to bottom, in the NL. While they stand only 3.5 games behind Los Angeles for the wild card, there are another four teams in between them. If the Astros can take care of the Reds and Brewers in head to head play, the NL West teams very well may beat on each other enough for the Astros to make a run.