The baseball off-season has just begun and already the Houston Astros are busy trying to improve from last year’s disappointing performance. Roger Clemens, after playing last season for the Yankees, has decided to come back to Houston, the Astros traded closer Brad Lidge to the Philadelphia Phillies and new general manager Ed Wade has left no stone unturned in his attempts to improve the team.
So Roger Clemens is coming back to the Astros, except it is as Roger Clemens the special assistant to the GM, not as the future Hall-of-Fame pitcher. When Clemens first signed with the Astros before the 2004 season, part of the agreement was a $3 million, 10 year personal services contract and Clemens’ agent has informed the Astros that Clemens is ready to begin the personal services contract; a clear indicator that Clemens is leaning towards retirement. In this contract, Clemens will be working very closely with the minor leaguers in the Astros’ farm system.
Clemens has failed at retirement three times by my count so forgive me if I fail to believe he is truly retired. He has been very wishy-washy about retirement, but so would I if a $28 million deal was on the table for a portion of a season. All I can say is that the Astros have assembled quite a staff of scouting and player development personnel. Clemens joins Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell and, hopefully someday, Craig Biggio in that department. It will be a tremendous asset to the Astros to have guys who not only played, but are Hall-of-Fame bound on their staff.
The Astros acquired centerfielder Michael Bourn along with reliever Geoff Geary and minor league third baseman Michael Costanzo for Lidge and infielder Eric Bruntlett. When I first saw this trade, I was stunned. I admit it looked really lopsided in the Phillies’ favor at first, but I really think that this was a smart move by Wade. He accomplished multiple goals. First, he shed the arbitration-eligible contracts of Lidge and Bruntlett. Lidge could have possibly received a big pay raise, but at least now it will not come from the Astros. Second, the Astros acquired the centerfielder that they desperately needed.
Wade said that he envisions Bourn, a Houston native and University of Houston product, as a catalyst for the club. He described him as a top-of-the-lineup hitter who will set the table with his tremendous speed.
Lidge may never be as good as he once was. Since giving up that homer to Pujols in the 2005 NLCS, he has been inconsistent and Bruntlett will never be more than a utility player. There are no guarantees for either team in this trade, but it gives the Astros youth and potential, which is more than it gives the Phillies. The key to this trade will be Costanzo. Last year he belted 27 homers and had 86 RBIs in 137 games for the Phillies AA team. At 24, he could very well be the Astros future at the hot corner.
Wade has also been very active in his attempts to bring in free agents. The Astros have been looking at second basemen Luis Castillo and Kaz Matsui. They have also kept several pitchers on their radar screen as they need a solid number two starter behind Oswalt. Jason Jennings throwing beach balls just is not good enough. They have also been considering John Leiber and Jeremy Affeldt.
Another question mark is how the Astros will address the closer situation after Lidge’s departure. They have been talking to free agent closer Francisco Cordero and there are also several internal options, such as set-up man Chad Qualls, hard-throwing right-hander Dennis Sarfate, and Fernando Nieve. The Astros toyed with making Nieve a closer last year before he missed the season with Tommy John surgery.
The Astros have many questions remaining to be answered. But there is one thing that fans can take solace in: they play in the worst division in baseball. In the last two seasons, the National League Central winners have tallied 85 and 83 wins respectively. There is no disputing the Astros were really bad last year, but at least they don’t have to improve as much as they would if they played in a good division.