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Uneasy lies the National League crown. The Astros came into this off-season with a number of tough decisions to make about their veteran players, and a bunch of their own players looking to get paid.

For starters, the team is still scrambling to replace Roger Clemens, whose Hamlet act concerning a return to the Houston–or even to the majors–in 2006 was a bit more uncertainty than Astros’ management could stomach. The Rocket was not offered arbitration, which makes the future Hall of Famer forbidden fruit for the ‘Stros until May Day.

Clemens taking off the month of April is not necessarily a bad thing–each of the past two years, the Rocket has worn down in the second half of the season. In 2005, his ERA jumped by nearly a run after the All Star break. If Clemens were to re-sign with the Astros in May, he stands a chance of being fresher down the stretch, and perhaps more durable through October.

However, as things stand now, Clemens is a free agent, also coveted by at least two other former employers, as well as by Texas’s American League franchise. Not to call the Rocket fickle, but he has been known to change his mind about team allegiances. And if Clemens scampers off with another team, or rides off into the sunset, the Astros are stuck with the unenviable task of replacing his MLB-leading 9.4 SNLVAR.

The dregs remaining in the free agent barrel won’t be able to replace Clemens’ production. Only Jeff Weaver would bring some fraction of Clemens’s value to the table. We mean that literally–Weaver’s SNLVAR in 2005 (4.2) was less than half of Clemens’, but was also 2 wins higher than the next best free agent starter. Weaver would bring innings to the table, and would fit very well in the Houston’s Juice Box given his susceptibility to lefthanded batters, (.875 OPS and 46 HR against him over the past three years) and his relative dominance of righthanders (.632 OPS, 24 HR over the same span).

The problem with Weaver is price–he’s a Scott Boras client and unlikely to pitch for a discount. Signing Weaver for the $8-10 million Boras is likely seeking would foreclose the possibility of signing Clemens, should he decide that pursuing the pennant in Houston would be a fun use of his time this summer, and would probably put a crimp in the team’s ability to dish out raises to their arb-eligible players–Morgan Ensberg, Brad Lidge, Adam Everett, and Dan Wheeler. Unless, that is, they can convince Jeff Bagwell to retire due to injury.

Reportedly, Bagwell’s “retirement” would reduce the team’s liability for his final contract year from $17 million to $1.4 million, with the rest being covered by insurance (or “Mo Vaughn-ed” as they call it in New York). Bagwell is a nightmare for the team, cost-certainty wise. Bagwell wants to come back, but admits that he cannot throw the ball because of the damage to his arthritic shoulder. During the postseason, Bagwell looked a shadow of his old self, going 2-for-11 while pinch hitting and DHing in the World Series. The Astros simply cannot know how much of Bagwell’s salary they will be liable for if he attempts a comeback.

The team has already made plans for life without Killer B #5. Their only big move of the season has been to sign Preston Wilson to an innovative contract. It’s a one-year, $4 million contract, at the end of which the Astros have an option for three more years of Wilson, which can cost as much as $27 million if Wilson meets all his incentives.

Wilson will probably move to one of the outfield corners, moving Lance Berkman to Bagwell’s old haunt at first base. A low-average, swing-from-the-heels righthanded batter, Wilson should benefit from Minute Maid Park, which is the second-best righthanded home run environment in the majors–even better than Wilson’s old home at Coors Field.

Derek Jacques

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