Houston's farm system on the rise

At the winter meetings in December, Astros general manager Tim Purpura announced that the team would not be offering salary arbitration to Roger Clemens. If the best 43-year-old pitcher in baseball history is going to return to Houston this season, it won't be until May 1 at the earliest.

Last week, the Astros had a mild dustup in the papers with first baseman Jeff Bagwell and his agent, Barry Axelrod, over a medical exam. The Astros need to assess the state of Bagwell's shoulder as a possible precursor to an insurance claim on the $17 million left on his contract. Bagwell says it's too soon to tell how he'll perform, so there's been a bit of tension in the air.

Between those two developments, the Astros worked to upgrade their roster. Amid a slew of Miguel Tejada trade rumors, they announced two free-agent signings -- outfielder Preston Wilson and left-handed reliever Trever Miller.

It's been the kind of winter that makes you want to ask for a mulligan.

Consolation comes in the form of goodwill the team generated from its first World Series appearance in its 44-year history. Purpura saw a sea of Astros caps and T-shirts in the crowd while riding in the city's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and he's been approached by a lot of strangers and booster club members who just want to say thanks.

"When you're in the playoffs and the World Series, you don't have any chance to take it all in and enjoy what's happened," Purpura said. "I've had people come up to me at the gas station or the grocery store and say, 'I was an Astro Buddy when I was 4 years old' or 'My grandfather grew up a Colt .45's fan.' I get a real kick out of that.

"I think we've turned this into a baseball town. There's a real fever for the club."

Even before the Astros' Series debut, they made a habit of putting a good product on the field for a reasonable price. Houston's .543 winning percentage since 1993 ranks fourth in baseball behind the Braves, Yankees and Red Sox, and the Astros have finished first or second in the National League League Central 11 times in the past 12 seasons. Try telling fans in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee that the people in Houston have had it rough.

Purpura, who replaced Gerry Hunsicker as GM 14 months ago, is more the deliberate type than a front-office gunslinger. It's partly a reflection of his background. He spent seven years running the Houston farm system before owner Drayton McLane put him in charge, and as a result, he's inclined to exercise patience with the prospects the Astros spend so much time and energy nurturing.

Last year, after the Astros started 15-30, management held out hope that Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, Willy Taveras and the young players would hit their stride, bond with the veterans as a unit and eventually turn things around. Not many Houstonians were enthralled with that strategy.

But the end result was straight out of an Astro Buddy's fantasy. Houston went 74-43 after May 24 to win the NL wild card, eliminated Atlanta in the Division Series, then bounced St. Louis to win the pennant. Although the Astros were swept by the White Sox in the World Series, they were outscored just 20-14 in four games. It wasn't exactly a walkover.

Fast-forward to January, and two questions will determine whether the Astros can make another serious run in 2006. Can they improve upon their total of 693 runs scored, 11th best in the National League? And if Clemens doesn't return, can they pitch well enough to overcome what will probably be a mediocre offense at best?

As the front office tries to address those questions, it will do its best to blend the present, past and future. "We're a team in a little bit of a transition," said manager Phil Garner. "But I still expect us to contend. And I didn't even expect us to contend for the pennant last year."

The Astros have their mainstays in Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge, and they worked in several new regulars last summer. Taveras was a Rookie of the Year front-runner until Ryan Howard and Jeff Francoeur arrived in July. Ensberg hit 36 homers despite going deep only twice in September because of a hand injury, and Jason Lane added 26 homers in his first full year.

But did the kids definitively prove they belong? Taveras can be an adventure in the outfield, and he led the majors with 70 infield singles and 29 bunt hits. It's a lot to expect him to do that again. As for Lane, he has a .573 slugging percentage at Minute Maid Park over parts of four seasons compared to .441 on the road.

Purpura, a glass-half-full guy, points out that Taveras never played a game of Triple-A ball before making the jump to the majors and that Lane sure didn't look intimidated while hitting three homers in the postseason. Chris Burke's .368 slugging percentage was unimpressive, but it hardly mattered when he hit that 18th-inning homer to beat Atlanta in the playoffs. And Brandon Backe's final start of 2005 was a seven-inning shutout gem in Game 4 of the World Series.

"I think young players are always a question until they've really established themselves,'' Purpura said. "Development isn't always a straight line upward. But Jason Lane has come so far from where he started, and Willy Taveras kept making adjustments and getting better. To me, the guys who make adjustments are the ones who are going to make it through that transition period.''

At the other end of the age spectrum, Houston's franchise fixtures may or may not be eased out gracefully. Craig Biggio keeps plugging along toward 3,000 hits (he's now 205 short) and an automatic ticket to Cooperstown. But in Bagwell's case, the Astros have reason to be skeptical. No one doubts Bagwell's commitment to his rehab. The question is whether he can throw the ball across the infield.

"I don't think we can afford to plan with him,'' Purpura said. "But we can't afford to plan without him, either.''

The Astros covered their backs by pursuing an outfielder who can allow Berkman to slide to first base if Bagwell is done. After making a run at Jeromy Burnitz, the Astros settled on Wilson, who hit 25 homers and knocked in 90 runs for Colorado and Washington last year. Wilson signed a one-year, $4 million deal, but it includes three option years that could be worth an additional $24 million. He's one highly motivated veteran.

Andy Pettitte is back for another year at $17.5 million, but Clemens' intentions remain a mystery. He could retire, re-sign with Houston or stay in-state with the Texas Rangers. In an odd way, the Astros' decision not to offer Clemens arbitration has eased some of the pressure. The team is free to concentrate on other matters, and Clemens can make his choice without it becoming a daily soap opera.

"I think there's a chance he'll come back next year -- I really do,'' Purpura said. "What the percentage is, I can't say.''

Purpura knows the long-term outlook depends on the Astros' ability to produce talent from within. Houston's farm system, once stocked with prospects, has fallen off in recent years, but it's showing signs of a rebound. The Astros have two impressive starters near the upper rung of the minors: 6-foot-8 Jason Hirsh, the Texas League Pitcher of the Year, and Fernando Nieve, who struck out 171 batters in 167 innings for Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Round Rock.

The Astros' 2006 finish could hinge on how the young players react to the increased scrutiny. Make one appearance in a World Series, and your professional life is destined to change.

"What are the expectations now?'' Purpura said. "I think we just have to take it a day at a time and a week at a time. The expectation should be, 'Let's play as hard as we can today to win today. And when today is over, we'll look at tomorrow.' That's the way you get through a six-month season.''

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.