The request was born of frustration going back to last year when he suffered through injuries and went 8-6 while the Astros finished fifth in the NL Central.
It is hard for a pitcher to win with a weak team. The Astros are no longer capable of giving him the kind of run support and defensive coverage he had become used to until 2009. At the age of 32, his chances of returning to the playoffs with the Astros look slim.
Typically, Roy didn't burn any bridges. He conceded that if the Astros got good young players for him and became more competitive, he would consider coming back when his contract is up in 2012.
Roy Oswalt has a matter-of-fact, quiet confidence. That's the first thing I noticed when he came up in 2001. My pitching coach, Burt Hooton, had worked with him at Triple-A, and he couldn't understand what the Astros were waiting for. "We've got a guy at Round Rock who can outpitch everyone on our staff right now," he said. "I don't know what we're waiting for."
Burt said this about two weeks into the season. Our pitching was in disarray at the time, but we didn't call Roy up until the first week in May. He started out in the bullpen, and was effective. He moved to the rotation and got better, finishing 14-3, and we won our division on the last day of the season.
I saw what Burt saw right away. Inning after inning, Roy put a zero on the board and acted like it was no big deal, walking back to the dugout like he was strolling down a dirt road in his hometown of Weir, Mississippi. He seems deaf to the crowd, and he walks to the dugout the same way when he is taken out in the middle of an inning. Nothing bothers him -- except losing.
That's a part of what makes him a great pitcher. A part you can't teach. It is also the reason I suspect he didn't think too much about the pressure he was putting on himself when he volunteered to be traded so early in the year. He had made nine straight quality starts in 2010, but he would have to keep it up for at least 10 more starts before the end of July. No team would want him if he were injured or slumping, because of his hefty salary.
In four of the five years I managed the Astros, we were considered buyers. We were in the hunt, looking for a premier player or even a specialist to help get us into the playoffs. In 1998, we got Randy Johnson and Doug Henry. After I left the dugout, the Astros still had winning teams and playoff aspirations. They got Carlos Beltran in 2004, Aubrey Huff in 2006 and Ty Wigginton in 2007. All of these deals were consummated near the end of July.
After July 31, a player must clear waivers to be traded. Virtually every player in baseball is put on the waiver list on August 1. A player on waivers can be claimed by any team in baseball for a small price.
If a contending team suspects that one of these players is likely to be traded to a team they are contending with, they claim him, blocking the other team from making the trade. If the team is only blocking a trade, and has no interest in the player, the team that has put him on waivers can pull him back. Occasionally, the team who has put the player on waivers doesn't want to keep him (usually because of his salary) and they don't pull him back, forcing the team that claimed him to pay the waiver price and keep the player. So there is some risk involved in a blocking maneuver, but if you want to make sure you get your man, you do the deal before August 1.
This year the Astros are sellers. They would like to trade Oswalt if they can get a few good prospects or even one great prospect. Sometimes that is not possible. We couldn't find a trading partner in 1999 and 2001, but we won our division anyway.
Now Lance Berkman has said that he might be willing to go to a contending team. He's 34 years old and is a greater risk because he is not having a banner year.
If you trade for Oswalt, you pay the price in the player(s) you lose, and also in salary. But Roy still has another year on his contract and he is having a great year. If you really like him, are confident you will contend again next year and are willing to gamble that he will stay healthy, his salary may actually be an advantage.
If you trade for Berkman, you pay a high salary for two months, and then he becomes a free agent.
At this point, there are 17 teams who could be considered buyers. All of them could use Oswalt if they could afford to pay him, but only five or six would have interest in Berkman as a first baseman. Some of the more prosperous AL teams could consider him as a first baseman/DH, but it would be a stretch to think he could still play in the outfield. The Astros couldn't get as much for him.
Finding a trading partner isn't easy. Most teams have good young players, but don't want to part with them for the same reason the buying team wants them -- they have great talent and don't make much money. If you are selling, you typically need help at specific positions and have to match up with a team that has the type of players you need. The Astros need help in almost every position, which should make it easier to trade Roy.
Of course the Astros wouldn't be in this position if they still had the players they traded before the July 31 Deadline in seasons past. Players like Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, John Buck, Mitch Talbot, Ben Zobrist and Dan Wheeler.
Most of the time, teams on the buying side prefer a player who is signed beyond the current year. They don't want to give up young talent to rent a player for two months. But that is not always the case. This year, the Rays wanted to rent Cliff Lee. But the Rangers came up with the package the Mariners wanted. Next year, the Rays are likely to be rebuilding anyway, and they would have gotten Draft choices when Lee became a free agent and signed with another team.
I think the Astros will be able to trade Oswalt. But the Rays thought they could get Lee. Time will tell. And time is running short.