End the Charade

added 4/9/2006 by Scott Barzilla

It’s been a good first week of the season for the Astros. Of course, this wasn’t completely unexpected given their opponents. The Fish and Nats aren’t going to be playoff contenders in 2006, so skeptics might look at the Astros record and scoff. They might be right. However, this ignores the greatness of the first week for every club. Opening Day brings so much hope for every fan. It begins the process of answering those questions about the key players on their team. The Astros certainly have their fair share this year.

The player they don’t have is Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell exited the way a lot of us thought he would. He didn’t offer any tears and he didn’t ask ESPN, Fox Sports, and CNN to come watch the spectacle. In fact, he didn’t officially retire. He still hopes another surgical procedure will allow him to play, but at the end of the day we know it’s probably the end. Bagwell’s situation was a distraction in Spring Training, but only because of the insurance situation. He said he wanted to see if he could do it and in the end he shut it down. It would seem like the Astros could move on, but they still have another distraction.

When the 2000 presidential campaign was still getting revved up, Colin Powell was traveling the country on book signing tours. The adoring masses hoped a presidential run was in offing and Powell did little to dispel the talk at first. He realized that the hysteria was helping his book sales. Finally, he ended the charade when he announced he wouldn’t run for the nation’s highest office. Of course, I’m sure he enjoyed the attention along the way.

Roger Clemens is going on his own kind of tour. He pitched in the World Baseball Classic for the United States. He enjoyed all of the standing ovations and adulation along the way. Then, he went to Ameriquest Field for the Rangers Opening Day. He couldn’t help the rampant speculation that maybe he would take the Rangers up on their offer. He spent the second night of the season in Houston so he could get his NL Championship ring. Andy Pettitte told the local radio stations that he has seen more of his buddy so far this year then he did when he was on the team.

I don’t know if Roger Clemens really wants to stick it to the Astros or not. There can’t be any doubt that at least a part of him is craving the attention. Either way, you cannot find more different people than Jeff Bagwell and Roger Clemens. They are both uber-competitive and are both determined to get better at their craft, but Clemens enjoys the attention in part while Bagwell does not. Whether or not Clemens wants to make life difficult on the Astros, his situation definitely continues to hang like a cloud over the team. The longer he waits to make up his mind on whether he will continue to play, the longer the Astros wait in limbo.

What do we do?

Everyone knows by now that May 1st is the day for the Astros, but much like this winter, Clemens almost certainly won’t make any decision on that day. In fact, people are pointing to June 1st as the day. Clemens’ statements are purposely cryptic and they leave everyone wondering whether he will pitch or not. While the issue is in doubt, the Astros feel compelled to leave the door open for him. Leaving the door open for him closes the door on other potential players.

Coming into the season, the Astros were in a unique situation. They had question marks on offense and on the mound, but they are expected to compete for a playoff berth again. By itself, that doesn’t sound unique, but when the Bagwell insurance deal gets settled in court they will have some money to play with. If Clemens decides to pitch he would be a good use of that money. Yet, like in the winter, good trade opportunities might slide by while we wait.

Some fans have lamented the lack of offense in the first few games this year. The extra insurance money might be enough to revisit a Miguel Tejada deal. Adam Everett’s defense has been better than ever, but it would be difficult to turn down another very good run producer. Maybe they can find an upgrade for Jason Lane in right field. Certainly, if Lane continues to strike out at anywhere near the clip he is right now, some people would welcome that.

On the other end of the spectrum, the persistent rumors of the Athletics’ interest in Chris Burke continue. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see Barry Zito in an Astros uniform. Yes, he has his issues (flyball pitcher, dwindling strikeouts), but he has given the A’s 200 or more innings in each of his five full seasons. All of these deals must be put on hold until Roger makes up his mind.

What’s the story?

In a normal season, the stories would all be focused on the key players on the team. There are so many players on the Astros who are important to the success or failure of the team. Many of them need to perform to be a big part of the future. Morgan Ensberg, Adam Everett, Roy Oswalt, and Brad Lidge are looking for long-term deals. Their collective performance this year will go a long way in determining their futures with the ball club.

Will Jason Lane and Preston Wilson provide the kind of punch the team needs or will they swing and miss too many times? Will Brandon Backe finally put it all together like he did in those two playoff games (Game 5 in the 2004 NLCS and Game 4 of the World Series) or will he continue to scuffle? Who will step up among the young pitchers on the bottom of the rotation? All of these questions are compelling questions that get put on the backburner whenever Roger Clemens’ name comes up.

Certainly, Roger Clemens deserves every honor that comes his way. He could be the greatest pitcher in baseball history, but here’s hoping he makes up his mind quickly and goes about his business. Certainly, the press deserves more than its fair share of blame in this regard, but Clemens could end this speculation quickly by dispensing with the cryptic statements. It’s funny that he has always wanted the Astros to go about their business without him, but they cannot because they cannot afford to. They cannot afford to swing any of those deals mentioned above and get Clemens. It’s one or the other. He needs to help them out in this regard.