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While Astros executives play the annual Roger Clemens waiting game, looking further toward the horizon we can see that the critical off-season for Astros management is not this year’s, but next year’s. At the end of the 2006 season, Andy Pettitte will have completed his heavily back-loaded contract and will be a free agent. Assuming Clemens sticks to his recent pattern of signing one-year contracts, he would be a free agent should he suit up for 2006. And as it stands now, the third amigo–Roy Oswalt–will be up for his final run at arbitration.

Thankfully, this is a situation for which Houston seems well prepared. Brandon Backe has proven to be a reliable back-end starter with upside, and he will still be under the team’s control at the end of next year. Assuming Oswalt is retained, that will leave three spots open in the rotation. In Ezequiel Astacio, Fernando Nieve and Taylor Buchholz, the Astros could have a new set of amigos ready to wring out the Juice Box.

Astacio did well enough in the minors that he received his first call-up in May. While the call-up ended up being a bit premature, he made it back to the majors in late summer, and the fact that the Astros carried him on the roster during their run to the World Series shows how highly they think of him. Astacio ended up spinning a 4.75 K/BB down in Round Rock this season. While his strikeout numbers dipped a bit and his walk numbers rose a bit once in Houston, the biggest disparity was in his G/F numbers. While it would be perilous to put too much weight in such small samples–Astacio threw just 65 2/3 innings in Round Rock and 81 in Houston–there is no masking the fact that he had problems with fly balls as an Astro. His 1.04 G/F ratio doesn’t necessarily conjure up memories of Derek Lowe, but his .77 G/F ratio in Houston helped play a role in the 23 home runs he allowed.

Nieve is practically an Astros lifer, and he hasn’t even set foot in Houston yet. Signed out of Venezuela at the ripe old age of 16, Nieve spent two seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League before making the journey stateside. The Astros were so impressed with him they almost protected him on the 40-man roster after the 2002 season, and then they did protect him at the end of the 2003 season. He has occupied a 40-man roster spot since, and the Astros figure to cash their Nieve chips in the youngster’s seventh professional season next spring. Armed with rates of 8.51 K/9, .65 HR/9, and 7.81 H/9 that he has amassed over 592 1/3 IP in the minors, Nieve does not figure to disappoint.

The last of the trio is Buchholz, the man with the devastating curveball. Buchholz’s star has dimmed considerably since he was the centerpiece of the Billy Wagner deal, but he is not yet chopped liver. Buchholz repeated Triple-A this season without receiving a call-up, and has pitched in 40 games at that level. During that time, he has compiled an ERA of 5.06, a K/BB of 2.13, and H/9 of 9.61. However, he still has his curveball, his youth, and is coming off a good Arizona Fall League performance. In an AFL where pitchers routinely served about as much purpose as a JUGS machine, Buchholz was able to compile a 1.57 ERA in six starts and 23 innings. A small ray of hope to be sure, but Andy Dufresne, and now even Michael Scofield, have helped show us that hope is a good thing.

Will the Astros be thinking to themselves, “ah the new trio, much like the last trio” at the end of 2007? Doubtful. Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt have put up some mind-numbing numbers when they have all been healthy, and carried the ‘Stros deep into the postseason in consecutive years. However, this is not to say that Astacio, Nieve and Buchholz won’t provide good returns. Astacio and Nieve had exemplary seasons in 2005, and were rewarded with spots on Baseball America‘s Postseason Top 20 for the Pacific Coast League. Buchholz has not progressed as planned but still has time to deliver on his blue-chip status. If the script plays out as planned, this new trio will slot in behind Oswalt and in front of Backe, and the Astros can focus their 2007 dollars on hitting as the sun sets on the careers of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

Paul Swydan

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The first step in solving your off-season problems is to identify
your needs. Two of the Cardinals’ most pressing off-season needs are
corner outfielders and a starting pitcher.

Larry Walker seems committed to his retirement, and
at 39 years of age that’s probably for the best. He’s played in just 182 games the past two years as his body slowly breaks down. Reggie Sanders has expressed
interest in returning to St. Louis, but his agent reports that the team is
more interested in filling other priorities first

Walker and Sanders combined for 56.5 runs of
VORP last year
, so replacing their production will not be easy.
At present the Cardinals’ minor-league system seems bereft of
outfield talent at the highest levels. The best outfielder in their
system is probably Cody Haerther, but he just broke
into Double-A at mid-season. His .
203/.320/.297 performance in the Arizona Fall League
impress much, either. Raul Gonzalez, who had a big
year in Memphis (.308/.375/.507) will be 32 in 2006 with a career
major-league line of .233/.301/.330. Tyler Minges
finally conquered Double-A pitching in his third go’round, but he’s
a six-year free agent and the Cardinals haven’t yet re-signed him.

It seems that replacements in the corner outfield positions will
either have to come from the major-league bench or from the free -agent market. John Mabry played all over the diamond
in 2005 (1B, 3B, LF and RF) but it’s questionable whether he could
man an outfield position adequately for an entire year.
It’s also not clear that Mabry has the bat to be average or above
average at an outfield corner. Which John Mabry will show up in 2006?
The hitter from 2002 and 2004 who averaged a .286/.345/.502 line, or
the guy from 2003 and 2005 with his much more pedestrian .231/.302/.391 line. With an OPS of 840+ his fishy defense could be
tolerated. An OPS closer to 700 is not going to be enough from a
corner outfield position on a playoff contender.

So Taguchi is more than adequate as a fourth
outfielder, and with his defensive prowess you could make a good
argument for him as a starting option in center, but he plainly
doesn’t have the bat for a corner outfield position. That leaves
John Rodriguez. His story was heartwarming (nine
years in the minors before he finally gets his shot in the bigs) but
the offensive output wasn’t wildly impressive. If he can keep the
batting average and on-base percentage up he’ll be a useful cog in an
offense that already has perhaps the game’s best lineup core in Albert Pujols,
Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. He
doesn’t have much power, though, so if the average or walk rate
plummet he could easily become a significant drag on the Cardinals’

Out-of-house options? The Cardinals are heavily rumored to be in
pursuit of free-agent right fielder Brian Giles, but
so are the Red Sox, Mariners, Yankees, Indians and his former team,
the Padres. The other rumor floating around the baseball world is
that the Rangers would be willing to part with Kevin Mench in exchange for a pitcher like Jason Marquis. Mench looked like he had a breakout year in 2004, but in
2005 he slid back to a level of offensive production that was less
impressive (.264/.328/.469), especially when you consider his home
park is Ameriquest Field. In 2005, his home vs. road OPS split was 826
vs. 769. In 2004 it was 936 vs. 801. With New Busch Stadium
looking to have deep power alleys, don’t expect Mench to play like he
did in Arlington the last couple of years.

Trading Marquis creates a new problem, though. Matt Morris is already fielding contract offers from other teams, and if
both he and Marquis leave, that would leave two rotation spots to fill
for the 2006 season. Anthony Reyes is an easy pick
for one of those spots, but do the Cardinals really want to pencil in
someone like Adam Wainwright or Randy Leek for 30 starts next year? Trading Marquis puts the team back
into the market for a starter, and in this year’s market that’s not an appealing proposition.

The safe thing to do would be to re-sign Sanders, but he’s not
getting any younger. As healthy as he’s been in recent years, the
show has to end sometime.

Tom Gorman

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Lockin’ Up Rocco: No, it’s not a very special episode of “The Sopranos” (yes, Virginia, there used to be a popular, edgy pay cable television show about New Jersey mobsters, but they only produced new episodes in leap years, so no one could remember what the heck was going on by the time the next season started), it’s a six-year, $33-million contract for a player who lost half of 2005 to a torn ACL (bad knee), and the other half to a torn UCL (bad elbow) requiring the dreaded Tommy John surgery (bad luck).

In the Family, throwing around money like that could get you wacked.

Well, not so fast. Although the Rocco Baldelli contract is being hailed as a mega-deal to keep the injured center fielder in Devil Ray green until his age-30 season, just three years and $9 million of that contract are guaranteed. Baldelli must meet a 600-plate-appearance requirement in 2006 to activate $4 million of additional incentives over the second and third seasons. After that, the D-Rays have two options on Baldelli, one for the 2009 season, and another for 2010 and 2011.

So, the contract has a whiff of bait-and-switch about it, with most media reports proclaiming it to be a huge long-term commitment to Baldelli, when it’s actually a $9 million bet that Baldelli will recover sufficiently to make the rest of this contract relevant. By eating up a number of Baldelli’s free-agent seasons with club options–much like they did with Carl Crawford–the Devil Rays have managed to one-up the Indians of the mid-’90s, who famously extended long-term contracts to their young stars rather than face them in arbitration. That’s a compliment to Tampa Bay’s front office, and credit should be given where credit is due.

Nonetheless, there is an element of risk in locking up Rocco. Baldelli could return, sufficiently recovered to take the field, but without the speed or arm to play center field well. With Baldelli’s lack of on-base skills, and thus-far middling power, the Rays could find themselves paying $13 million over the next three years for a latter-day Gabe Kapler.

Florida? That’s Where You Go to Retire! That’s the flavor of this winter’s Devil Ray free agent crop:

Free Agent        Age   WARP   PA    EqA
Roberto Alomar     37   N/A    N/A   N/A
Denny Bautista     33   N/A    N/A   N/A
Alex S. Gonzalez   32   1.5    383   .257
Eduardo Perez      36   1.9    190   .292
Travis Lee         30   4.1    441   .263

Admit it, you didn’t remember that Roberto Alomar was a Devil Ray‚Ķor that Danny Bautista was alive. Both are on the voluntary retired list, which is a strange enough concept in itself. For Bautista, that doesn’t mean much, but for Alomar, it means the clock is ticking on his Hall of Fame eligibility. While Alomar is on the free-agent list to keep his options open, his next stop on a major-league roster will probably cost him that shiny .300 batting average of his, which surely outweighs the off-off-chance he might have of getting those last 276 hits he needs to get to 3,000. As Jay Jaffe noted last March, it’s unlikely that the failure to reach 3,000 will keep Alomar out of Cooperstown.

The other Devil Rays free agents don’t quite have such exalted expectations for their post-baseball lives. Alex Gonzalez‘s career should continue if he can find his way back to doing some good glovework at shortstop. He neither hit nor fielded enough to be much more than a replacement-level third baseman. With Julio Lugo and B.J. Upton blocking him at short, Gonzalez should hit the road. Eduardo Perez could be useful to keep around, if only for those moments when Randy Johnson comes to town (4-for-8 with three walks and three homers this season). Travis Lee‘s VORP would place him 12th among American League first basemen, but a vacuum cleaner first baseman’s mitt keeps his WARP higher than Shea Hillenbrand‘s, who’s sixth on the VORP list. Lee has value for some team out there, just probably not this team.

Derek Jacques