Decision 2007: Where will Rocket go?

Originally Published: April 5, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Well, it's getting to be that time of year again:

Rocket-watching time.

If it's April, that must mean that any day now, Roger Clemens is going to have to wave a sad farewell to the pro-am golf circuit -- and start gearing up his workout program for YouKnowWhat.

EXTRA RUMBLINGS:
A ROCKET TREND?
So once the Rocket Man cashes in another pro-rated $20-million-plus contract as baseball's only midseason free agent, does anyone see a trend out there someplace? "I just hope it doesn't transcend into more guys wanting to do that," says one NL executive. "But I think the groundwork has been laid. What would keep a (John) Smoltz from wanting to do it? What's to keep a (Mike) Mussina from wanting to do it? And it's easier (for a club) than going out and getting somebody (in a trade), because you don't have to give up any players. So I bet you'll see more of this." Heck, at this rate, it's hard to rule out the possibility that Clemens will do it until he's 60.

Cubs
• One baseball-management figure predicts the Cubs could get sold for $800 million to 900 million if the sale includes their 20-percent chunk of Chicago's Comcast SportsNet, and about $650 million if it doesn't.

• It's too soon to speculate on the Cubs' next owner(s). But several prominent baseball men expect Bud Selig and MLB to get directly involved in hand-picking the next face of the franchise. One longtime Selig watcher even predicts the commish could turn to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for advice -- a potentially uncomfortable alliance, given that the Sox and Cubs compete with each other for those Chicago baseball dollars. Then again, could it be any more uncomfortable than the Florida-Montreal-Boston game of ownership musical chairs MLB played five years ago?

Carlos Zambrano
Zambrano
• The buzz is that Selig also has done some private grumbling about the Cubs' impending Carlos Zambrano deal, now on temporary hold while the Cubs await further instructions from their bosses at the Tribune Company on the franchise sale. But what's the problem? Zambrano's average salary isn't going to be much different from Barry Zito's ($18 million a year). And the rest of the contract is believed to be patterned after Roy Oswalt's five-year deal (two years shorter than Zito's). "If they can get Carlos Zambrano signed for five years at those dollars," says one AL executive, "that's not even close to what he'd get on the open market."
Yes, friends. Clemens' fourth annual un-retirement may well be upon us. That, of course, assumes that his quads, hamstrings and award-winning right arm are as on board with that plan as the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox clearly are.

It's an amazing phenomenon, this Return of the Rocket, Chapter 4. The guy turns 45 in August. But if anything, the market for him this year looks more feverish than ever.

Yankees pitchers are toppling like bowling pins. Jonathan Papelbon just vacated the Red Sox rotation. And the Astros never seem to get tired of adding seven-time Cy Youngs to their rotation.

So how will this all play out?

We've been surveying some of our favorite Rocket watchers in baseball this week. And here's how we would answer the pressing Clemens questions of the day:

Who's the favorite?

It makes more sense taking Jay-Z lyrics literally than it does taking Clemens' public comments on this literally. So our guess is, this is the Astros' ball to drop.

You don't need Mapquest to know Clemens' commute is slightly shorter to Minute Maid Park than it would be to, say, Fenway. The owner in Houston doesn't mind sending his private plane over to the Rocket's runway any time it's convenient. The lifestyle perks can't be beat. His son does happen to be a real, live Astros prospect. And it's never a bad thing to play in a town where people treat you like royalty 24/7.

The Yankees and Red Sox can match or beat the dollars. But they can't counter any of that other stuff. So never lose sight of that, as this story morphs from conjecture to decision time.

So does that make Houston a slam dunk?

Heck, no. Folks in Houston get the impression Clemens has never watched the Astros more closely than he is right now. Usually, it's the team that decides if it wants a player. In this case, the player seems to be trying to figure out if he wants the team.

Face it. One of these years, Clemens is going to stomp off the mound for the last time. And he obviously would prefer to do that in the last week of October, for some team that doesn't necessarily have to play in Houston.

There is certainly a scenario in which this Astros team wins the NL Central. But there other scenarios, too -- scenarios in which the bullpen, or the outfield defense, or the back end of the pitching staff, or all of the above, just aren't good enough for any one player to make a difference.

So if Clemens decides he sees those scenarios coming, the Yankees-Red Sox bidding war can officially erupt.

Does the Papelbon move heighten the Red Sox's interest?

Well, it definitely makes the fit better, and more logical. But the Red Sox appeared to be plenty interested, even before Papelbon volunteered to pivot back to the bullpen.

What that move really does, in the context of this discussion, is potentially make the Red Sox better. And that's an even bigger factor than the rotation spot Papelbon left behind.

You could see Clemens signing with a team that has a this-game's-over kind of closer a lot more easily than you could see him signing with a team that's still auditioning closers in mid-May. And suddenly, that's not just the Yankees. It's the Red Sox, too.

Have the Yankees' pitching injuries spiked their interest?

Nope. Not that we can tell. The Yankees knew they had rotation issues a long time ago. They didn't need Chien-Ming Wang to pop a hamstring to figure it out.

They've had their "Welcome Back, Roger" banner ready to fly for months. And they'd sure rather not fly it just because the Red Sox are coming to town.

It may be true that Clemens seemed to be closer to a return to Boston last year than he did to an encore in New York. But the Yankees can offer him the best lineup in baseball, the best closer in history (Mariano Whatshisname) and one of the Rocket's best buddies (Andy Pettitte) as primo attractions. So they'll be as alluring as ever.

Is there still a chance he won't pitch at all?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact. But no matter how many 50-50 or 80-20 percentages Clemens tosses out there when he starts laying the odds, we'd bet on comeback numero quatro.

There's no logical baseball reason Clemens should quit. He had the best ERA in the whole sport after he rejoined the carnival last season.

And there's no financial reason Clemens should quit. He'll have somewhere in the neighborhood of a $15 million lottery ticket to cash if he just signs a contract.

Starting Pitcher
Houston Astros

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W L BB K ERA
19 7 6 29 102 2.30

So why wouldn't he play? Here's the only way he stays retired, assuming no health hurdles pop up:

The Astros get off to, say, a 14-20 start and just don't have "that look." So they're out. Meanwhile, the Yankees, the Red Sox and their ever-impassioned media friends crank up a 2007 case of Clemens fever that gets so out of hand, the Rocket worries that he would torch his bridges irreparably in whatever market he doesn't choose.

Or he decides that signing with either of those teams makes his life way too tough, that he doesn't need the aggravation of four consecutive months of road games.

Or he worries that if he plays for any team other than the Astros, it isn't worth the damage that move might do to his idyllic little gig as a walking, talking, fairway-pounding local icon.

None of those scenarios would be impossible, just unlikely. But the good news is, we're only a few weeks away from having this annual melodrama leap off the drawing board and plunk down in real life.

Until then, though, there's no telling how many where's-he-going-this-year stories are coming to a sports section near you. But we'd say the over-under is somewhere around 22 million -- and 22.

TRIVIALITY

After Felix Hernandez ripped off eight spectacular, two-hit, 12-strikeout innings on Opening Day, six days before his 21st birthday, we got to thinking: Who's the last pitcher to win his age (i.e., have as many wins in a season as years in his life)? (Answer later.)

MORE RUMBLINGS

One scout's review of Curt Schilling's stunning Opening Day clunker: "He didn't have one above-average pitch, except for his splitter. And he was behind in the count too much to make it effective." But the same scout says he saw no reason Schilling won't rebound. "I didn't see any flaws in his delivery, and I didn't see any arm restrictions," the scout said. "So I think he'll figure it out."

Gil Meche
Meche
• The same scout on the reason for Gil Meche's Opening Day success: "That's the best command he's ever had when I've seen him. And he was able to repeat his delivery better than I've ever seen him."

• The Cubs have told Kerry Wood they won't bring him back to Chicago until he has demonstrated he's healthy enough to pitch back-to-back days. Which would make his ETA, uh, what? Two weeks? Two months? Or never?

• The Brewers were dangling the disgruntled Jose Capellan all week, and one NL executive says: "I think he'll get traded by this weekend." One team that kicked it around: Colorado.

• Stephen Drew had a reputation in college as a guy who often seemed disinterested. But he has looked anything but since he arrived in Arizona. "The guy looks like a hell of a player," one AL exec says. "It seems like he plays the game very aggressively. I don't see him turn it on and off like somebody else in his family."

• Two scouts who followed the Braves this spring believe their biggest potential problem could be first base. "I'm not a Scott Thorman [fan]," one scout says. "Too many holes in his swing. He's struggled at every level he's played on, at least initially. And I think he's going to struggle this year. He's going to run into some home runs against right-handed pitching because he's very strong. But he's very, very vulnerable against good left-handed pitching."

• One baseball man who visited with George Steinbrenner recently says the "ouster" of his son-in-law, Steve Swindal, as Yankees heir apparent is an overblown story. Now that Brian Cashman is entrenched at the top of the baseball operation, with Randy Levine and Lonn Trost dividing the off-field stuff, the Yankees' lines of power are clearly drawn. And the assumption that Swindal would succeed Steinbrenner some day was based on a shaky assumption -- that the Boss ever plans to back off. Steinbrenner may not be as involved, or as healthy, as he used to be. But his friend says: "His supremacy, on a day-to-day basis, still exists."

Frank Thomas
Thomas
• Bet you didn't know Frank Thomas and Vernon Wells met a long, long time before Thomas first walked into the Blue Jays' locker room this spring. "The first time I met him, I got his autograph at a card convention when I was 12 years old," Wells said. "He seemed like he was much bigger then." And what was Thomas' reaction when Wells told him that story? "I told him, 'I don't want to hear no more of that talk,'" Thomas laughed. "I said, 'Please don't tell me how old I am anymore.'"

TRIVIAL ANSWER

Roger Clemens won 24 games in 1986, the year he turned 24 in August.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com