Friday, January 13, 2006

Runaway Rocket

Another solo flight for me on Notebook, this time covering the Astros. Figure this one may actually be interesting to Yankee fans because it deals with Roger Clemens, who is currently an X-factor hanging over baseball--still one of the best pitchers in the game, available to all and sitting on the sidelines...for now. The Rocket has already declared that he won't decide on a new team until after the World Baseball Classic (yes, that article is still coming), but he's not elligible to sign with Houston until May 1, because of the 'Stros decision not to offer him arbitration. Here's a taste from the article:

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.

Clemens's situation reminds me a bit of that of the protagonist in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. For those of you not into foreign flicks, it's the same story that was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (arguably Clint Eastwood's breakout movie) and most recently by Bruce Willis as Last Man Standing.

The protagonist of each of these stories is a badass (masterless samurai in the original, independent gunfighter in the others) who wanders into a town in the middle of a gang war. The two feuding factions almost automatically sense that he's someone to be reckoned with, and immediately start trying to recruit him, each believing that he's the key that will turn the tide in their favor.

In the original, there's a great scene where the two factions have a squirmish in the town square. As each gang approaches from their respective side of town, our guy climbs a structure in the middle of the square (a water tower?) to get a better view of the competition. As the two gangs ineptly try to wage war with each other, the warrior sits, neutral and literally above the fray, his intentions a mystery to both sides. The ultimate free agent.

I wonder if a similar scenario will play out in a small town called the AL East next Spring?

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