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Even with Clemens, Astros far from a contender

Put the finest racing engine in the family four-door sedan, add bald tires, a car seat or two and an air freshener and you've got the automotive equivalent of Roger Clemens and the 2005 Houston Astros.

That is, a fine piece of machinery wasted by mismatched parts.

No one on this planet is pitching better than the 42-year-old Clemens. Witnesses to this fact include Andy Pettitte, who says he has never seen his old friend pitch better for an extended time. Clemens won two of his seven Cy Young Awards while pitching alongside Pettitte, but he's been sharper this season than in 2001 or 2004.

Yet Clemens was 1-1 after five starts, including an 0-1 record in his last four starts. During that time he had started three 1-0 losses and last Friday's 3-2 loss to the Cubs and Greg Maddux.

No wonder at least one of his veteran teammates is already admitting the obvious. "He doesn't belong on this team,'' the unnamed Astro said after one of the recent losses.

That player had a point.

Clemens, it seems, lost his one and only chance to get his hometown team to the World Series when he couldn't protect a 2-0 lead in Game 7 of the NLCS in St. Louis last October.

With Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent leaving as free agents, it's hard to see the Astros having enough firepower to compete against St. Louis and possibly the Cubs in the NL Central. The more likely scenario is that the Astros remain back in the pack, then deal the Rocket to either the Yankees or Red Sox before the July 31 deadline.

No one will admit that this is the case this early in the season, just as Arizona couldn't afford to publicly start shopping Randy Johnson after his perfect game last May. But like the 2004 Diamondbacks, these Astros just don't have enough hitting to win consistently, even behind a dominant pitcher.

During their 10-13 start, the Astros averaged only 4.0 runs per game, 15th in the 16-team National League. They were also 15th in home runs, 11th in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging percentage.

A season ago, when the Astros added Beltran in late June and nipped the Cubs in the wild-card race, they were sixth in runs, seventh in homers, seventh in on-base percentage and sixth in slugging.

The drop is understandable considering the Astros are without Beltran and Kent, who either scored or drove in 40 of the 67 runs Houston scored in its 12 playoff games last season, and also have missed injured left fielder Lance Berkman. First baseman Jeff Bagwell, second baseman Craig Biggio and catcher Brad Ausmus aren't getting any younger, either.

Berkman, who tore up his knee playing flag football this past offseason, is beginning a Triple-A rehab assignment. But this is hardly a lineup that is one man short. Consider that shortstop and right field are the only positions where the Astros' OPS has been in the top half of the NL.

Left field, where Luke Scott, Chris Burke and three others have combined for a .207 average and one homer in 91 at-bats, has been the biggest hole. But Houston also ranks 11th in OPS at first base (where Bagwell isn't exactly earning his $18 million), third base and in center field; 10th at catcher and ninth at second base.

Rookie GM Tim Purpura must feel like the Little Dutchboy trying to plug all those holes.

This, of course, is exactly what happens when you pour too much salary into one player. The Diamondbacks paid Johnson $16 million of a total payroll of $70 million last season. That's 22.9 percent.

Imagine two Johnsons and you've got the mess Purpura inherited from former general manager Gerry Hunsicker, who could no longer handle owner Drayton McLane's meddling.

Both Clemens and Bagwell are $18-million players this season, and McLane's total payroll is about $77 million. That's 23.4 percent per player – or almost half of the payroll for two players, one of whom won't play in at least 130 games and the other of whom is hitting .265 and on pace for 20 homers.

This is a formula for a midseason trade to rebuild, not one for success.

Houston had lost six games in a row – beginning and ending the streak with losses in Clemens' starts – before beating the shell-shocked Cubs on Saturday and Sunday at Minute Maid Park. The Astros defeated Pittsburgh (the only team in the NL with a less productive lineup) on Monday and will finish their home stand with two more games against the Pirates. But then they'll depart on a killer trip to Atlanta and Florida.

Purpura insists there's plenty of time to turn things around.

"We're pressing," he told the Houston Chronicle's Richard Justice on Friday. "Everyone is trying to go up there and hit a five-run home run."

Clemens, too, believes things will get better.

"We've got a lot of veteran guys on that hitting side who know what they're doing," he said. "They're going to keep grinding."

But it takes depth to win, and the Astros are not a deep team. They are a team with aging, big-name players that could not afford to replace the big guns it lost after last season.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.