Lidge, Wheeler ink one-year deals

Astros ink Lidge, Wheeler to one-year deals

HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros wiped two more key pitchers off their to-do list when they inked Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler to one-year deals on Tuesday.

Lidge, one of the league's top closers, will earn $3.975 million in 2006. Wheeler, who emerged as a solid setup man, signed for $930,000. Both contracts include incentive clauses.

Third baseman Morgan Ensberg is the last remaining arbitration-eligible player yet to sign a contract. Ensberg and the Astros filed their proposed salary figures on Tuesday, and the two sides are $800,000 apart. The Astros are offering $3.4 million, and Ensberg is asking for $4.2 million.

If the two sides do not reach an agreement, they will go to an arbitration hearing in February. The Astros have not been to a hearing since 1997, when they won their case against Darryl Kile.

The general feeling among both Wheeler and Lidge was relief, glad to have come to an agreement in a timely manner and put the business side of their offseasons aside.

"I'm just extremely excited to get it done and not have to drag out the process," Lidge said.

"We wanted to get a deal done," Wheeler said. "It's a good deal for both sides. And now that we have that settled, I can get ready for the season and not have to think about it."

Without Wheeler and Lidge, the bullpen would never have been considered a strength of the club during a 2005 season that ended with the franchise's first-ever World Series appearance. Lidge, 29, logged 42 saves, good for third in the National League. He tied the franchise record with 22 second-half saves and led all Major League relievers in strikeouts for the second consecutive season.

The closer made his first All-Star appearance last year in Detroit, where he struck out the side -- a feat that hadn't been accomplished since Bill Caudill and Dwight Gooden did so in 1984.

Lidge's name has been mentioned in several trade rumors this offseason, including a blockbuster deal reportedly including the Orioles. The latest rumblings suggested the two sides were discussing a deal that would send Lidge, Adam Everett and either Jason Lane or Willy Taveras to Baltimore in exchange for disgruntled shortstop Miguel Tejada. Those talks are seemingly off in the wake of Tejada's recent announcement that he wants to stay in Baltimore.

Lidge heard the rumors but emphasized that he is unfazed by the talk.

"The first time I heard my name in trade talks was when I was in Double-A, and I've heard my name come up every other year since," he said. "I don't give those things a lot of credence. The first one really stressed me out, but my agent said, 'Don't worry about it. It means people want you. Take it as a compliment.'"

In his first full year as the Astros' setup man, Wheeler had a breakout season. The 28-year-old right-hander was 2-3 with a 2.21 ERA and three saves in a career-high 71 outings in '05.

He held opponents to a .204 batting average, and his first-half ERA of 1.60 was the third-lowest in the National League. In 35 appearances at Minute Maid Park, Wheeler posted a 1.45 ERA.

Wheeler has appeared in seven League Championship Series games and has never allowed a run. His 9 2/3 scoreless innings are the sixth-most for any pitcher in LCS play without allowing a run.

Wheeler isn't taking anything for granted, but he did acknowledge an added confidence now that he has a defined role for the first time in his career. After all, last year at this time, he was one of at least five pitchers up for the setup role.

"This will probably be the first year that I've looked at it like that," he said. "You still have to come to Spring Training and get your work done, but there's definitely a level of comfort to feel like I can get the job done and contribute to the team."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.