Sunday, March 25, 2007


I checked the newspapers this morning and there were three different articles that included significant parts about Roger Clemens and which team he was going to pitch for this season. As everyone knows, Clemens is "undecided" about whether or not he is even going to pitch in 2007, let alone which team he will pitch for.

Nobody seems to take Clemens latest comments, that he is leaning "80%" towards retirement, very seriously. It seems pretty well established that he will pitch this season. The only question is who he will pitch for. The candidates are the same as last year:
  1. Clemens' hometown Houston Astros, with whom he has pitched for the past three seasons (2004-2006).
  2. The New York Yankees, with whom Clemens was with for five seasons (1999-2003), and last pitched for in 2003
  3. The Boston Red Sox, with whom Clemens was with for thirteen seasons (from 1984-1996), and the team he is most likely at this point to represent in the Hall of Fame.
Last season, Clemens reportedly had eliminated the Yankees from consideration and was very close to choosing the Red Sox, before deciding to return to Houston.

This season, like last, Clemens would improve all of the above teams. The Astros probably need him the most, though it is questionable whether or not Clemens would be able to pull the team into the playoffs again. The Astros hitting is not looking promising, and with Brad Lidge getting lit up (again) this Spring Training, the bullpen may not be the strength that it was in seasons past.

Further, the Astros lost Andy Pettitte to the Yankees this past off-season, and after Roy Oswalt, their rotation looks weaker than in recent years. Clemens can have the largest impact in Houston by coming in as the team's best or second best starter. The Astros playoff hopes are seemingly pinned on Clemens returning to his hometown for another season.

On paper, the Yankees don't need Clemens nearly as much as Houston does. Thats not to say they wouldn't be able to put him to good use though. With Pettitte returning, the re-signing of Mike Mussina, and the talented yet confusing (how can a guy pitch so well without striking anyone out?!?) Chien-Ming Wang, the Yankees rotation goes five deep.

That said, cracks are already starting to form. Kei Igawa, a talented pitcher whom the Yankees brought over from Japan, has had problems this spring.** Due to a small muscle tear, Wang will start the season on the disabled list. Pettitte was shut down recently because of back spasms. Mussina is 38 years old, and is at risk to get hurt at some point this season. Carl Pavano, who hasn't pitched real innings in two seasons, is now slated to be the Yankees opening day starter. This is partially because of timing and availability, but it also speaks to the tenuous state of the starting rotation in New York.

Adding Clemens would, assuming health in the rotation, allow the Yankees to either make a trade, or move someone to the bullpen. But it's entirely possible that Clemens could simply replace an injured pitcher. The Yankees have five good-to-decent starters, but there are health (Pettite, Wang, Mussina, Pavano) and quality (Pavano, Igawa) concerns for each. Clemens has neither concern, and as such, would be a big pickup for New York. In the middle of the season Clemens could be the final piece to the puzzle in New York.

Up until recently (as in two days ago), the Red Sox had one of the deepest rotations in all of baseball. It featured Curt Schilling, Daiske Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, Jon Papelbon, and Tim Wakefield. But, with the recent move of Papelbon to the bullpen, Wakefield moves up to the #4 spot, and Julian Tavarez moves from the bullpen into the #5 spot. Wakefield may have been the best fifth starter in baseball, but he definitely isn't the best fourth starter, and Tavarez may be one of the worst fifth starters in baseball. While moving Papelbon may have been necessary, it opened up a huge hole in the rotation.

The Red Sox do have other options. Lefty John Lester is recovering well from the cancer he was diagnosed with at the end of last season. He has been throwing well in Spring Training and looks like he will start the season with AAA Pawtucket as their #1 starter. If he does well, he could earn a call-up to the Red Sox within a month. Other options include Devern "The Sack" Hansack, another young pitcher who is scheduled to begin the season at AAA. Hansack has pitched very well this spring, throwing three scoreless innings yesterday against Baltimore.

Still, for a team looking to win this season, Clemens would be preferable to Lester or "The Sack." Boston is the only team of the three where, as things stand today, Clemens would not be responsible for "fixing" the rotation single-handedly. He could slot in somewhere between #2 and #4, and with comparatively minimal pressure.

There is also the history angle. Clemens currently co-holds the Red Sox team record for wins with Cy Young (192). Boston is the team he came up with, and the organization he was with for 14 years. He maintains relationships with friends in Boston to this day, and was reportedly very moved by the way the Red Sox went after him before last season. All things being equal, it is likely that Clemens would chose to end his career where he began it.

But all things won't be equal, and my guess is Clemens will make his decision based on three things: 1) how much money he is offered, 2) where the teams are in the standings/what their post season chances look like at the time, and 3) other intangible elements, such as how close to home he'll be, what perks the teams are willing to let him have, how much he values returning to Boston or New York, etc.

The only thing for certain is that all by himself Clemens can move the balance of power in the American League East. If he wants to. Its going to be interesting.

**I have noticed in the articles about Igawa and Matsuzaka, both pitchers have remarked that when they get their pitches up in the zone they get blasted. This is not a surprise to me - its true of pretty much every major league pitcher - but it clearly is a surprise to them. This makes me think that one of the differences between American and Japanese baseball is the talent to hit balls up in the zone. When a batter swings at a fastball up and makes contact he will often hit it a long way. Even as a lousy batter in high school, I knew that one way to elevate the ball, which I was not strong enough to do on my own, was to hit balls up in the zone. Apparently, in Japan one can get away with throwing balls up in the zone, whereas in the majors, those balls get crushed. Matsuzaka and Igawa are learning this now. The question is how much do they depend on throwing high strikes to get outs.

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