Excuse me for not penciling the Yankees in for second place, or even (egad) third.
But let's assume for a moment that the Yankees do acquire Kevin Brown. This would essentially mean that Brown and Javier Vazquez have replaced Pettitte and Roger Clemens ... and isn't this a good thing? (For the Yankees, I mean.)
Don't get me wrong. Clemens and Pettitte both pitched good baseball last season. Just not as good as Vazquez and Brown. And while Brown isn't the most durable of pitchers, he's younger than Clemens, and of course Vazquez is younger than Pettitte.
Let's look at what these guys did in 2003, just innings and ERA+ (which is ERA, relative to the league and adjusted for the pitcher's home ballpark) ...
Clemens 212 112
Pettitte 208 109
Brown 211 169
Vazquez 231 153
Granted, the past doesn't perfectly predict the future, but if Brown and Vazquez are healthy in 2004, they'll represent a significant upgrade from Clemens and Pettitte, whose impressive won-lost records benefited from the Yankees' potent lineup.
Could a Yankees rotation that includes Brown stack up with the Red Sox's new Schilling-ful squad? You'd better believe it. Mussina/Vazquez/Brown is just as good as Martinez/Schilling/Lowe, and I suspect most clubs would take Jose Contreras over Tim Wakefield in the fourth slot.
It's true, as the rosters stand right now, the Red Sox would have to be considered the favorites in 2004. But the way things stand now isn't the way they'll stand in March, at which point I suspect the Yankees will have muscled their way back to the top of the forecasted standings.
How will Andy Pettitte fare in Houston? He'll presumably enjoy his family life there, but his baseball life is going to suffer. His (relative) run support will suffer, because while the Astros have a good offense, the Yankees had a great one (they led the AL in road scoring in 2003). And Pettitte's trading a home ballpark that's kind to left-handed pitchers for a home ballpark that's not (though he is a ground-ball pitcher, which will help).
And frankly, Pettitte's not a great pitcher. He was great in 1997 and excellent in 2002 (when he wasn't on the disabled list), but most years he's been merely good. Everyone seems to think the Astros are getting a No. 1 starter, but the reality is that Pettitte is the team's third-best starter, behind Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller.
Why do people think he's a No. 1 starter? Because Pettitte's spent his entire career pitching for the best baseball team in the world, which has meant 1) great run support, and 2) plenty of TV time in October.
Which isn't to say it's a terrible move for the Astros. There's nothing wrong with having a solid No. 3 starter, though $10.5 million per season seems like a lot to spend unless it's the Yankees or the Red Sox doing the spending (and of course, the Yankees offered even more money than the Astros did).
Let's put it this way: Mark Buehrle just signed a new three-year deal with the White Sox for roughly half the money Pettitte got ... and Buehrle's a better pitcher.
You don't believe it? Below are innings and ERA+ for both Buehrle and Pettitte:
Buehrle 2001 2002 2003
Innings 221 239 230
ERA+ 140 129 108
Pettitte 2001 2002 2003
Innings 201 135 208
ERA+ 112 134 109
Buehrle's better and he'll give more innings, at least if history's any sort of guide. And yet he's not making nearly as much money as Pettitte, merely because he happens to pitch for the wrong team.
We've come a long way, babies. But we still sometimes forget that when a pitcher has a good-but-not-great career ERA and a .656 career winning percentage, he probably had a lot of help along the way. The Astros are going to remember, but it's going to be a costly and painful memory.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.