Not a day goes by without another news alert from the Roger Clemens-watch -- which could be the difference between the U.S. prevailing or getting smoked in the World Baseball Classic. But the real intrigue begins in April (or May), which will impact the two 2005 playoff teams most in need of Clemens' fastball this summer.
Baseball executives speak with one voice when they say that without Clemens, the Astros are doomed as a wild-card entry, let alone finishing second in the National League Central. And those same industry voices are saying the Red Sox, still sorting through the residue of a frenetic offseason, won't win 95 games again unless they can pluck the Rocket from Houston before May 1.
In fact, the Boston Globe says a face-to-face meeting between Clemens and Red Sox officials might already have taken place last week.
With so much at stake, it's no wonder that Clemens' agents are fielding a steady stream of just-checking-in phone calls from GMs, including the Yankees' Brian Cashman. He all but revealed the team's courting strategy this week, saying, "Roger's got a great place in our history. It doesn't mean history can't continue to be written."
Still, the Yankees know they're long shots in the Clemens vigil, which is why they're not exactly sweating the next two months. Cashman told reporters that "we have depth" in the starting rotation. Despite Randy Johnson's and Mike Mussina's advancing years, Yankee officials still believe their starters will be more dependable than Boston's.
And for the Astros, GM Tim Purpura doesn't try to minimize the Rocket's imprint on the franchise, or what his loss would mean. In a recent radio interview, Purpura said, "Our goal is to get back to [the World Series], and it would certainly be easier with Roger on board."
Here's the breakdown of the Red Sox's and Astros' potential trouble spots:
After so much reshuffling, the Red Sox like to think they're younger and more athletic than they were in 2005. But one American League executive said, "There are too many question marks for me to think they're better than the Yankees right now."
First on the list of curiosities is how well-conditioned Curt Schilling will be. He gained weight after post-surgery rehab on his right ankle last year, which resulted in the highest hits-per-inning ratio of his career and a diminished fastball. Depending on who you believe, the 39-year-old Schilling is due for a bounce-back season or else is on a slow, insidious slide towards mediocrity -- not unlike Mussina's potential trend line.
The Sox are just as hopeful (or anxious) about Josh Beckett, who has the chance to be a young Schilling -- or just Josh Beckett, who's won more than nine games just once in his career and whose ERA on the road last year was almost two runs higher than at Pro Player Stadium. There's a whispering campaign under way about Beckett's health, as well, focused on his right shoulder that's in rougher shape than anyone at Fenway is letting on. It's no secret that at least one Red Sox executive was ready to kill the Beckett trade with Florida after an MRI of the right-hander's shoulder revealed excessive wear and tear.
However, the Yankees are fighting suggestions that Johnny Damon's shoulder is a mess, too. One rumor has it that Damon, who received a cortisone shot in his left shoulder last September, has been getting secretly treated all winter, although Cashman says, "That's news to me. He had to pass our physical, and he did."
The Sox's list of concerns extends to Keith Foulke (how effective will he be after surgery on both knees?) and Mike Lowell (is he really just 32?) and Coco Crisp, who's better suited to play left field, not center. Alex Gonzalez is a far better defensive shortstop than Edgar Renteria, but the Braves' faith in Renteria -- admittedly fueled by Rafael Furcal's defection to the Dodgers -- will be worth watching.
The good news for the Red Sox is that the Yankees, aside from Damon, are a slow and relatively unathletic team that has no choice but to engage in high-scoring games. Mussina and Johnson are older and not necessarily better than they were in 2005, and a completely new setup relief corps offers no clue as to whether Mariano Rivera will breathe any easier this summer.
In fact, the Yankees will have to carry 12 pitchers because of lefty reliever Mike Myers' inability to retire right-handed hitters. That will leave just four players on the Yankees' bench: Bubba Crosby, Andy Phillips, Miguel Cairo and Kelly Stinnett. In the words of one scout, "[Joe] Torre better hope no one gets hurt."
The Astros were two different teams last year, losing 32 of 51 games in April and May, but winning 19 of 30 after September 1 en route to reaching the World Series. But not everyone was impressed. Nationals GM Jim Bowden told Florida Today, "I'm not sure they would have gotten into the playoffs as a wild card had the Phillies played the same schedule that [the Astros] had."
Clearly, the Astros are pinning their hopes on Clemens' return. Other than adding Preston Wilson, the Astros, who were 11th in the National League in runs, haven't upgraded their offense. The Cardinals are the logical favorites in the Central Division, but second place could be anyone's prize, including the Cubs, who've added Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones as their Nos. 1 and 2 hitters. The two top spots in Chicago's lineup scored 173 runs last year, third fewest in the National League.
The Astros are hoping, of course, for Morgan Ensberg to hit the way he did before being struck by a pitch on his hand on Sept. 5, forcing him to miss the next 10 games. Ensberg set Houston franchise records for home runs (36) and RBI (101) by a third baseman in 2005, but he had just one homer in the playoffs.
The Astros' offensive profile is further complicated by an ongoing dispute with Jeff Bagwell, who insists he will show up for spring training and not retire -- despite the Astros' attempt to recoup through insurance $15.6 million of the $17 million Bagwell will be owed this year.
Purpura insists no one is trying to force Bagwell out of the game, nor is he being denied his money. But, ruefully, the GM also says Bagwell is "a mere glimpse of what he used to be."
Of course, Clemens could fix all this. At the very least, he could give the Astros what they most desperately need for 2006: hope.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.