Three Card Monty

added 4/19/2006 by Scott Barzilla

You and I knew it would happen. The 8-4 start was simply too good to be true. Of course, twelve games is not enough to base anything of substance on, but we were all thinking the same thing: how long did it take us to win three road games last year? Anyhow, the malaise from a good start quickly subsided after I returned home from my trip to the in-laws. Internet access is limited and Astros coverage is non-existent in LSU country, so I did not hear of Backe’s fate until I returned home.

Suddenly, the 15 day disabled list looks tame in comparison to the six weeks or worse reported by the Chronicle. Richard Justice is already ready to beg Clemens to come back on behalf of Drayton McLane (or as Drayton McLane in his column), but that decision might be hasty. Clemens is definitely the most attractive option, but he’s also playing hard to get. The Astros can afford to wait until May 1st, but can they afford to wait until June 1st? The Clemens affair is just one of three options the Astros have in this dilemma.

Let the Kids Have it

The Astros have long maintained that they like the combination of Zeke Astacio, Wandy Rodriguez, Taylor Buccholz, and Fernando Nieve. Certainly, it would be reasonable to expect two of them to pan out as decent starters. If that happens, the Astros will have four solid starters and everyone will be happy. The club would have the option of waiting until July 31st to fill out the fifth slot.

The advantages of this position are clear. The club needs to look to the future at some point. Whether or not it is this year remains to be seen, but both Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte are expensive and unsigned in 2007. Pettitte has hinted at retirement and Oswalt will definitely break the bank with his next contract. If two or three of these young guys step it will help them make the hard decisions on Oswalt and Pettitte. Moreover, it will help them make the hard decisions with the rest of the roster.

If Preston Wilson does hit 30 or more home runs (and drive in around 100 runs) does he deserve to get the option picked up? If Morgan Ensberg hits another 30 or more home runs does he deserve a long-term contract? Does Adam Everett deserve a long-term contract? If the answers to all of these questions are yes then it will certainly cost the Astros a pretty penny. If they can find three young starters who will get close to the minimum they might be able to afford all of that.

Bring back the Rocket

Yes, this is the most appealing of the options. There is no pitcher in baseball that is as good as Roger Clemens was last season. If there were such a pitcher, that pitcher certainly wouldn’t be available. The local ties are certainly a plus, but more important right now is giving the team six or seven innings every fifth day. Fernando Nieve lasted four innings on Sunday and Buccholz is not guaranteed to last more than that on a regular basis. The club cannot afford to have three spots manned by pitchers who will bow out before the fifth inning on a regular basis.

The trouble with Clemens is three-fold. First, if we assume he comes back for a pro-rated salary we still have to fill the rotation until he is able to pitch in late May or early June. The first of June is practically six weeks away, so Backe’s spot wouldn’t necessarily be filled. The club would have to remain afloat for six weeks while McLane and Clemens haggle (and he gets in shape).

Moreover, wooing Clemens will take time and effort. What if he decides not to come back after all? How much time and energy will the club waste finding out? How much money will it cost to bring him back even for four months? Will Clemens give the Astros a pro-rated deal? Even if the deal is prorated, it will almost certainly be two-thirds of last year’s salary (or higher). By acquiring Clemens, the Astros are taking themselves out of the running for any other player that makes anything substantial.

Make a run at Zito

Presumably, Barry Zito is the best available starting pitcher at this moment. Billy Beane is rumored to be interested in Chris Burke. The marriage seems perfect if they can agree on a young arm or two to throw into the deal. I’m sure Beane would love to precur Burke, Hunter Pence, and Troy Patten, but the Astros aren’t that dumb or desperate. Perhaps, Burke and Nieve would do the trick.

Yet, even if the terms are reasonable for both sides, the deal is still rife with problems. First, Zito is making a pretty penny just like Clemens would if he came back to the team. Getting Zito would cost two bargaining chips the Astros could use later in the summer for anything the club might need. Even if Zito performs, there is no guarantee that other pressing needs wouldn’t come up. Like Clemens, getting Zito would be the one big move the Astros have.

More importantly, Zito is a free agent after the season. So, if he comes to Houston you can add him to the list of players Purpura would have to make a decision on. The problem is that one of his possible replacements would be going along in the deal (if it included Nieve, Buccholz, or Astacio). Zito is also a flyball pitcher that would be coming to a ballpark that favors right-handed hitters.

Are we the sucker or the shill?

One thing is for sure, all three options have considerable advantages and disadvantages. No one has to tell anyone in Astros country what advantages Roger Clemens brings to the table. However, he is another year older and just as expensive as he ever was. Zito is young and durable, but he is also expensive and not as dominant as he used to be. If he signed a long-term deal it might make the deal more attractive, but do we need another solid pitcher signed for ace money?

This leaves the kids. The kids are cheap and the kids have upside, but they are still kids after all. Does Purpura really want to put all of the pennant hopes on shoulders of that quartet of pitchers? If they are decent, the club may have enough offense and veteran pitching to get it done. If they aren’t decent you will have several aging veterans see their last chance at a ring.

I’m not going to write any letters in the voice of Drayton McLane, Tim Purpura, or Roger Clemens. These are the kinds of dilemmas that people like Tim Purpura get paid the big bucks for. One thing is for sure though, the clock is ticking on this decision and it might be the most important of his young career as general manager.