Craig Biggio saw a couple of reporters approach his locker and smiled. “Let me guess what you guys want to ask about? The Rocket, right?,” the Houston Astros second baseman said. Normally, all conversation about Biggio these days begins and ends with his quest for 3,000 hits. He is 47 away from becoming the latest major-leaguer to reach that plateau.

However, Biggio makes a good point when he suggests Roger Clemens as a topic of conversation. As much as the Astros try to downplay it, the absence of the Rocket looms over them at all times, especially after getting out of the gate with a 10-15, which puts them 6 ½ games off Milwaukee’s pace in the National Leauge Central. “It’s always there,” Biggio acknowledged. “But we can’t focus on Roger. Nobody knows for sure what he is going to do. We can’t just float along and wait for him to save us. We have to concentrate on winning games and if Roger comes back to us, he comes back. Hopefully he does, but we can’t sit here and count on it.”

For the second straight season, Clemens is going to wait until sometime in May to decide whether he will come back and pitch a partial season in the major leagues, or if this is the year he finally decides to retire. Last year, he chose to play a 23rd season, the third for his hometown Astros, not making his first start until June 22 (after three minor-league tune-ups). He nearly lifted them into the National League playoffs by posting a 2.30 ERA in 19 starts, helping the Astros make a late charge before finishing 1 ½ games behind eventual World Series winner Cardinals in the NL Central.

This year, the 44-year-old Clemens says if he returns that it be with the Astros, Red Sox, or Yankees. There are compelling reasons for Clemens to pitch for each of the three teams:

  • Houston is where Clemens calls home, and the Astros have let him work on a schedule where he can basically come and go as he pleases, as long as he is ready for his starts.
  • Boston is where Clemens began his career, having spent 13 seasons with the Red Sox from 1984-96. He is also tied with Cy Young for the Red Sox’ career victories record.
  • Clemens won his two World Series rings with the Yankees, and his best friend, left-hander Andy Pettitte, is back in The Bronx after spending the previous three seasons with the Astros.

“I don’t think there is any question about what Roger would do for our pitching staff,” Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said. “Anyone would want Roger Clemens in their starting rotation. He’s still one of the very best pitchers in the game. I would think the only guy in this clubhouse who wouldn’t want Roger back is whoever would be the fifth starter in the rotation at the time and would lose his spot on the roster.”

A couple of statistics show just how good Clemens was last season, even though he only threw 113 1/3 innings. He ranked 12th in the National League in VORP among pitchers who worked at least 100 innings. It’s interesting to note that the top 10 finishers all pitched at least 212 innings, and the eleventh, Padres hurler Chris Young, logged 179 1/3. Clemens was also first among all NL pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2006 in RA+:

PITCHER                    RA+
Roger Clemens, Houston    1.82
Roy Oswalt, Houston       1.59
Anibal Sanchez, Florida   1.54
Chris Carpenter, StLouis  1.49
Brandon Webb, Arizona     1.44

The Yankees could desperately use Clemens, especially because their rotation has been decimated by injuries. The Red Sox, with one of the deepest rotations in the games, would likely be able to get by just fine without The Rocket, but you can’t count out the fact that they’d love to one-up the Yankees in the Clemens derby, just as they did in the chase for Daisuke Matsuzaka over the winter.

The Astros could use Clemens just as much as the Yankees, as they have struggled to fill holes in a rotation missing both the Rocket and Pettitte. Oswalt is still the ace of the staff, but Jason Jennings, acquired from Colorado, has made just two starts because of elbow tendonitis, and Woody Williams, another native Houstonian who was signed as a free agent over the winter, has looked every bit of his 40 years. The Astros are yet again trying to fill out the balance of the rotation with youngsters like left-hander Wandy Rodriguez and right-handers Matt Albers and Clint Sampson, all of whom are far from established major-league commodities. The Astros rank ninth in the NL with a 4.17 ERA, and the rotation rates an equally mediocre ninth in the league in Fair Runs Allowed.

“I don’t think you really get a true feel for just how good a pitching staff is until you get three months in a season, maybe even longer,” Ausmus said. “So, it’s tough to say at this point in the season how good our staff is. I do know it has the potential to be good. We have some good young arms to go with some of the veteran guys. Whether it all comes together or not, though, won’t be known until later.”

Meanwhile, Houston emphasized beefing up the offense over the winter by signing left fielder Carlos Lee to a six-year, $100-million contract as a free agent. He gives the Astros a big-time power threat to go with first baseman Lance Berkman and third baseman Morgan Ensberg in the middle of the order. However, despite the attempt to shore it up, the Astros’ offense has sputtered, as Houston ranks only 12th out of 16 in runs scored with an average of 4.0 a game, and only 11th in Equivalent Average. Top prospect Hunter Pence was called up from Triple-A Round Rock last weekend to take over for converted infielder Chris Burke in center field, and General Manager Tim Purpura broadly hinted that more changes could be coming. “Carlos Lee has driven in some runs, but we really haven’t had anyone in our lineup get really hot,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “My expectation is that we’ll have a good offense and score a lot of runs. So far, that hasn’t materialized, but we have the people in place to have a very good lineup.”

Even though the addition of Lee meant that the Astros began the season with a payroll of $87 million, that will have no effect on their pursuit of Clemens. Owner Drayton McLane understands what a great draw Clemens is, and will come up with the money to compete with Boston and New York for the Rocket’s services. Garner, too, knows how popular Clemens is in Houston. He found that out again first-hand early in spring training, when Clemens arrived at the Astros’ spring training complex in Kissimmee, Florida, to work with his 20-year-old son Koby, a third baseman with Lexington, Houston’s Low-A farm club in the South Atlantic League. “There were 500 people standing there on one of back fields watching Roger throw batting practice to some of the minor-league kids,” Garner said. “It was amazing. We never get that kind of a crowd when the major-league team is working on. Everyone loves the Rocket.”

That is exactly why the Astros would love to lure Clemens back one more time. He helped pitch them to the National League Championship Series in 2004, where they lost a thriller to St. Louis in seven games, and to their first-ever World Series appearance in 2005, when they were swept by the Chicago Whtie Sox. He nearly got them back to the postseason last year-although critics might note that it was his late arrival that ended up making the difference. Obviously, he could swing the balance of power the Astros’ way in the weak NL Central this year.

Yet, if the Astros don’t start winning then the pursuit of Clemens could be moot. “He’s not going to go through everything you need to do to be in shape to pitch at a high level in the major leagues to play for a team that’s playing out the string,” Ensberg said. “He’s only going to play for someone who has a legitimate chance to win it all. That’s why we just have to concentrate on winning games now, because he isn’t coming back (here) if we’re not in the race.”

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