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Astros acquire Villarreal from Braves

Astros acquire Villarreal from Braves

HOUSTON -- The Astros acquired reliever Oscar Villarreal from Atlanta in exchange for center fielder Josh Anderson on Friday in a move to bolster the back end of the bullpen.

Astros general manager Ed Wade didn't stop there, as the club also initiated contact with free agent second baseman Tadahito Iguchi and signed outfielder Yordany Ramirez as part of a busy day that also saw the Astros keep the lines of communication open with the two free agent second baseman the club has already made contract offers to: Kaz Matsui and Luis Castillo.

In exchange for Anderson, a 25-year-old speedster who hit .358 with three doubles and 11 runs batted in during 21 games with the Astros in 2007, the Astros acquired a veteran right-hander who can provide late-inning relief alongside Chad Qualls.

"Making this deal was contingent on us being able to sign Yordany Ramirez," Wade said. "[Ramirez] is a developing player with a lot of upside, and this was a chance to stockpile a quality outfielder to the system."

Villarreal, who turns 26 on Nov. 22, was 2-2 with one save and a 4.24 ERA in 51 games for Atlanta in 2007. He has appeared in 223 career Major League games and owns a 23-12 record with one save and a 3.71 career ERA. Villarreal was acquired by the Braves in December 2005, along with right-hander Lance Cormier, in exchange for catcher Johnny Estrada. He was originally signed by Arizona as a non-drafted free agent on Nov. 6, 1998.

During his rookie season of 2003, Villarreal pitched in a National League rookie-record 86 games and finished 10-7 with a 2.57 ERA. His 86 appearances in 2003 also set the Major League record for the most in one season by a pitcher from Mexico, eclipsing the previous mark of 84, set by Enrique Romo of Pittsburgh in 1979.

"Oscar Villarreal gives us another experienced, durable arm for the bullpen," Wade said. "He has the ability to pitch late in a game, throw multiple innings and pitch back-to-back days. We gave up a good, young prospect in Josh Anderson, but with the additions of Michael Bourn and Yordany Ramirez, along with our earlier waiver claim of Reggie Abercrombie, we had the outfield depth to make this move."

Wade said the addition of Villarreal doesn't mean Qualls will be the club's new closer.

"This was done to add another quality arm to our bullpen," Wade said. "[The closer role] is something we have plenty of time to address."

Atlanta GM Frank Wren said the deal evolved quickly, as he and Wade didn't start discussing this particular trade until Thursday morning.

"It was kind of an offshoot of our GM show and tell [at the GM Meetings]," Wren said. "[Villarreal] wasn't going to be non-tendered. We like what he has done for us. I think we determined with some of our young players, who are out of options that we need to protect, that we could trade Oscar if the situation arose."

Wade said he called Wren after learning at the GM Meetings that Villarreal was available, and that the Braves were looking for a center fielder.

"But we wouldn't have made this trade without getting Ramirez signed," Wade said. "He's a guy a lot of teams wanted."

Anderson had an idea he might be traded after the Astros picked up Bourn from Philadelphia last week.

"I kind of thought something like this was coming, and when Ed Wade called [Friday], I had a feeling this was what he was calling about," Anderson said. "But I have no regrets. My time with Houston has been great. It's a great organization and they're a great bunch of guys, but I'm excited about going to the Braves.

Hot Stove

"I'm very excited about it, my wife's excited about it, my whole family is excited about it. I have an aunt who lives in Atlanta, she's a big Braves fan, and my family's from Kentucky, so it's just a short drive down I-75. If I was going to get traded, Atlanta would have been in the top-two best places for me to get traded."

Anderson played in 132 games at Triple-A Round Rock, hitting .273 with two home runs, 43 RBIs, and 40 stolen bases. He was selected by Houston in the fourth round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft.

Now, he could be the guy who succeeds free agent Andruw Jones as Atlanta's everyday center fielder.

"That would be an unbelievable honor," Anderson said. "He's been a great player for them for a long time. My goal going into the season is to start for somebody, and that hasn't changed. Obviously I have to do what I can do, I can't try to be Andruw Jones. But I'm very excited about the opportunity and looking forward to it."

Ramirez, formerly of the San Diego organization, was signed to a Major League contract that includes a spot on the 40-man roster.

Ramirez, 23, batted .269 with four homers, 43 RBIs and 22 stolen bases for Class A Lake Elsinore last season. He played 30 games at Triple-A Portland, where he hit .315 with four homers, 18 RBIs and six stolen bases. He is currently playing for Licey in the Dominican Winter League, hitting .344 (11-for-32) with five RBIs in 12 games.

In Baseball America's 2007 Best Tools Survey, Ramirez was tabbed as being the best defensive outfielder and the player with the best outfield arm in the San Diego organization.

"Yordany Ramirez ranks as one of the top defensive outfielders at the higher Minor League levels, and we think that he will continue to make significant progress with the bat," Wade said. "Felix Francisco, our recently hired director of Latin American scouting, originally signed Yordany while working for the San Diego Padres, and he thinks that Yordany will develop into a front-line big league player. There were several teams pursuing Ramirez, and we thought enough of his ability to sign him to a Major League contract."

Iguchi's agent, Rocky Hall, confirmed to MLB.com that the Astros are one of several teams who have inquired about his client. The Brewers, Padres, Angels and Rockies have also expressed an interest in talking with Iguchi.

Iguchi, released by Philadelphia on Thursday, cannot begin negotiations with new teams until Monday at 9 a.m. ET.

"His contract contains a clause that gives him the right to reject a waiver claim, so even though he has to clear waivers, teams understand he can't be claimed," said Hall, who is seeking a three-year deal for his client.

Iguchi played for the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and 2006, hitting .278 the first season and a career-best .281 with 18 homers, 67 RBIs and 97 runs scored in 2006. He led American League second basemen in home runs and runs scored that season. Iguchi batted .267 with nine homers and 43 RBIs for Philadelphia in 2007.

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Mark Bowman contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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