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"Lou is not talking about mechanics when he goes out to the mound,"
~Chicago Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Clemens Retiring Would Benefit Astros

As a Houston native and a resident of Texas I am fully aware of the adoration the city of Houston holds for its homegrown legend Roger Clemens. When he pitches, they fill the ballpark to cheer their hero. They flock to HEB to buy charcoal and steaks when they see him, Andy Pettitte, and David Carr grilling on TV commercials. The fans, the local media, and even management refer to him as simply, "Rocket". They absolutely love this man. They love him so much that they refuse to acknowledge that he has only pitched in this city for two years. For all of these reasons, they will ridicule me for what I am about to suggest. The Astros will be better off if "Rocket" hangs up the cleats.

Clemens made just over $18 million last season and will command at least that much next year and possibly as much as $22 million. If any player is worthy of that salary it is Roger Clemens. But at his age and on this team, it doesn't amount to the best investment. Clemens is coming off a year in which he poted his lowest ERA of his career. However, because of a lack of run support the Astros were only 15-17 in his starts. Even though that's not Clemens fault, 15-17 is still 15-17. The Astros offense was dismal last season, ranking near the bottom of every major statistical category. Unless that offense is improved, another career year from Clemens will still only help the Astros win around 15 games. What good does it do for Clemens to hold the oppostion to one run if the offense can't produce any runs? Losing 1-0 is no better than losing 5-0.

Even if Clemens duplicates his 2005 performance, a stagnant offense makes his production far less valuable. Never mind that Clemens will turn 44 next year and showed signs of slowing down and aging with his hamsting and back problems in September and October. In his last 10 regualar season starts he gave up 20 earned runs in 62.1 innigns pitched and then got beat up in the postseason. While those numbers are still respectable, they're certainly not the dominant outings he had in the first 4 months of the season. So how dependable is "Rocket" in 2006? It's unlikely he will post another 1.87 ERA. I would expect him to be closer to his career ERA of 3.12. How much longer can he hold up? Will the hamsring or back cause him to miss some time? If Clemens could only make 20-25 starts, that wouldn't add up to a wise investment of $20 million dollars. Especially considering the club is already commited to $62 million between Pettitte, Oswalt, Berkman, Biggio, and Bagwell alone. Drayton McClane isn't going to open up the wallet to shell out much more than he already has. McClane wants to keep the payroll under $80 million which is where the Astros would be at if Clemens comes back. So unless they plan on expanding payroll or fielding a team of 3 pitchers and 3 position players some decisions have to be made.

So this ends up being as much of an economical situation as it is a performance one. The money Clemens would make would be much better spent elsewhere. The Astros will need to retain some of their own players who are eligible for arbitration. Morgan Ensberg, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Adam Everett all figure to get significant raises. Those 4 guys played for a combined $1.8 million last year.

If Clemens were to retire, that would free up extra cash to bring these guys back as well as sign free agents to improve the offense. They would presumably need one more veteran starter unless Purpura feels okay with Backe, Astacio, and Rodriguez filling out the rotation.

Brina Giles would be the most attractive free agent signing. The only problem is figuring out where he would play. In fact, that seems to be the problem for any free agent signing. With Bagwell only able to play 1st base, that pushes Berkman to LF. Lane is a good, cheap option in RF and the Astros seem content to play Wily Taveras in CF. Biggio will be at 2nd and Ensberg at 3rd. That leaves only 2 places for offensive improvement: SS and C. And it's doubtful that the Astros will part with Adam Everrett because of his defensive ability, leaving the catcher position as the only spot to upgrade. Ausmus could be released to upgrade there. That would save the Astros another $2 million and the agony of his .682 OPS, which was actually his highest in the past 5 years. Bengie Molina is 7 years younger, has a better arm, and a .782 OPS.

Although it's unlikely, what the Astros should consider is either sending Taveras back down to AAA or using him as a 4th outfielder and baserunner off the bench. That would allow an upgrade in the outfield either by moving Lane to center and signing a corner outfielder or by signing a guy who can play center. They could also consider an offensive upgrade at SS. Everett and Taveras rank among the lowest full time starters at their positions in OPS last year. The only other option is to sit back
and hope these guys drastically improve offensively next year, but I think that's a mistake. Taveras has always showed an inability to hit XBH and has poor plate discipline. Plate discipline has been a problem for Lane, Everett, and Lamb too (who figures to platoon at 1st with Bagwell).

The bottom line is that the Astros have some serious consideration going into 2006 and I don't think counting on another career year from Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt, Lidge, Qualls, and Wheeler is the answer. If that happens they could possibly overcome the lack of offense once again. But they should not expect the offense to produce anything more than what it did in '05. Purpura needs to ask himself this question. Do I want to bring back a 44 year old starting pitcher back for north of $18 million or hsould that money be spent to improve the offense? I think he's got to go with the offense. And while it may not be a popular move in the Bayou City, it will be a smart one.

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