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Between A Rocket and a Hard Place
2005-01-19 12:40
by Mike Carminati

Roger Clemens is asking for a record $22 M in arbitration and if he doesn't get it, he may retire as the reigning Cy Young winner in the NL and a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer. The Astros are offering $13.5 M. Clemens earned $5 M last season ($3.5 deferred to 2006).

OK, you've heard all that, but what you may not have heard is that two more Astro starting pitchers, Tim Redding and Pete Munro, also were seeking arbitration money much higher than the team's offer (Redding: $1.4 M vs. $575 K; Munro: $1.1 M vs. $525 K). Redding made $395 K last season, went 5-7 with a 5.72 ERA (25% worse than the park-adjusted average), and was not used in the postseason. Munro was 4-7/5.15 (16% worse than average), but had one good start in two tries after being pressed into duty in the NLCS (his last available salary was $305 K in 2003).

The Astros' biggest problem in the playoffs was their thin starting rotation corps, something that has only gotten worse with Wade Miller leaving this offseason as a free agent. After Roy Oswalt (who asked $7.8 M in arbitration; the Astros offered $6 M) and Any Pettitte, there are a lot of question marks, and most of them a larger than which side, the player or the team, wins the outstanding arbitration cases.

Brandon Backe was just average during the regular season (5-3, 4.30 ERA—at the park adjusted league average) but looked great in the postseason: 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA in three starts. He'll be given every opportunity to garner a spot in the rotation.

That's three spots. Even if Clemens decides not to retire, that leaves them with one spot to be filled by Munro, Redding, Phils castoff Brandon Duckworth (1-2/6.86 in 2004), or Carlos Hernandez (1-3/6.43), none of whom inspire much confidence.

So where does that leave them? Oswalt has been a solid staff leader for four years, and even with a slight rise in his ERA last season (a career-high 3.49 23% better than average), he should remain so. Pettitte is rebounding from an injury but should be solid starter if healthy. The inexperience/lack of talent (depending on your point of view) at the tail-end of the rotation is a concern.

What of Rocket in 2005? Well, he is coming off his best season in the last six (even though I tabbed Randy Johnson for the Cy Young). I initially thought he was starting to lose it in the second half last year, but the numbers don't bear that out. He fell from awesome in the first few months to "just" very good in the second half, but even so, his strikeout numbers improved in the last two months of the season. Here are some of his more pertinent splits:

Pre-All Star2.6210318116.79.332.471.180.69
Post-All Star3.41811597.78.943.231.130.55

When a pitcher switches leagues, an adjustment of some sort, by either the league or the pitcher, is expected once the batters get to see the pitcher multiple times. However, Clemens gave no indication (or at most very slight indication) that the NL batters were starting to figure him out. He is 42, but he gives every indication that he still has gas left in the tank (witness his 21 Ks in 25 innings in the postseason).

Aside from the rotation issues (and a bullpen that often deserted them in the playoffs), the Astros have lost two regulars, CF Carlos Beltran and 2B Jeff Kent, to free agency. With Beltran gone, apparently Craig Biggio moves back to center and 28-year-old perennial prospect Jason Lane takes over in left (though there are rumors involving free agent CF Jeromy Burnitz). Jose Vizcaino, who took over for Adam Everett at short in the playoffs, now becomes the putative second baseman. With scant free agent remaining (Enrique Wilson, Rey Sanchez, and Ricky Gutierrez), he may be their best option. That's a big difference offensively at both spots.

Clearly, this team has some bigger issues than how many millions it will fork over to Roger Clemens in 2005.

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