Astros' rotation rules!

There's nothing that makes life as a sports fan more worth living than the chance to debate the most fun question in sports:

Who's better -- this guy or that guy, this team or that team, this sport or that sport, this beer or that beer? (Oops. Strike the last portion of that debate. That's an old side argument.)

So, now that Roger Clemens is an Astro, and Andy Pettitte is an Astro, and Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez are Yankees, and Bartolo Colon is an Angel, and Curt Schilling works for the Red Sox -- there's no doubt about what has become the latest, greatest baseball version of that debate:

Who has the best rotation in baseball?

OK, take a quick breath now and think.

Is it the Astros -- the first National League team since the 1956 Dodgers to assemble four starting pitchers with .600 career winning percentages?

Is it the A's -- a team that employs three starters in their 20s (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito) who are already a combined 99 games over .500 (205-106)?

Is it the Red Sox -- a team with a rotation fronted by three pitchers (Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe) who have all started an All-Star Game?

Is it the Yankees -- a team whose prospective fifth starter (Jon Lieber) won 20 games in 2001?

Is it the Cubs -- the only rotation in baseball last year to rack up more strikeouts than hits?

Or is it someone else -- the Marlins, Phillies, Angels, Mariners, Braves or the team that actually had the lowest starters' ERA in baseball last year, the Dodgers?

Hmmm. Tough question. So in order to help you argue it next time you're hanging around some tavern with about 11 hours to kill, we surveyed a bunch of general managers, executives and scouts this week. Here is how they voted:

No. 1: Astros
They had an easier time winning this survey than selling season tickets this week. They got the most first-place votes. And no one voted them lower than third. Clemens and Pettitte have more postseason experience than the whole Astros franchise. Roy Oswalt leads all active pitchers in career winning percentage (43-17, .717). Wade Miller has ace-type stuff. And the options for fifth starter (Tim Redding, Jeriome Robertson, Brandon Duckworth, Carlos Hernandez) are fabulous.

The reviews: "No one (else) has four starters who can be classified as No. 1 or No. 2's." ... "Added a veteran leader (Clemens) and haven't had a left-hander (Pettitte) of that quality since Hampton." ... "Might have as strong No. 5 depth pool as any team in your survey." ... "Age and health of Clemens and Pettite are the only concerns here. Pettitte's elbow scares me."

No. 2: Yankees
Lots of division about where to rank this group, which was rated everywhere from first to fourth. With reason. On one hand, the Yankees are the first 100-win team in history to turn over 80 percent of its rotation. On the other hand, they've done it well -- on paper. They're the only AL team featuring two starters (Mike Mussina and Brown) with more than 100 wins and a .600 winning percentage. Vazquez is one of just four pitchers with double-digit wins and more than 200 innings in each of the last four years. Lieber won 20 in his last healthy season. And there's a reason Jose Contreras makes $8 million a year. But for the first time in years, there are more questions on this staff than on "Jeopardy" -- and no left-handed starters.

The reviews: "Four days a week, they can stack their pitcher up against your best and have a chance to beat you." ... "Lots of upside -- with lots of risk." ... "Health of Brown and Leiber will be the key here. Brown, if healthy, may not lose a game in Yankee Stadium." ... "I want to see Javy pitch in the American League. And I want to see Kevin Brown pitch a full season."

No. 3: Red Sox
With Schilling and Pedro Martinez at the top, no team has a more charismatic, more dominating, more established 1-2 tag team. Among starters currently on AL rosters, Pedro and Schilling rank first and second over the last five years in most strikeouts per nine innings and fewest baserunners per nine innings. Only Roy Halladay has more wins over the last two years than Derek Lowe (38). And Tim Wakefield and Byung-Hyun Kim have their moments. But our panel ranked the Red Sox anywhere from first on their ballots to off the ballot completely.

The reviews: "Best No. 1 and No. 2 in baseball. ... "The top two are quality, healthy, proven, reliable and battle-tested. The next two (Lowe and Wakefield) are versatile and consistent, among many other attributes." ... "On Days 1-2-3, they're as good as any club in the game. On Days 4 and 5, chuck and duck."

No. 4: A's
Hudson-Mulder-Zito are the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz of this generation. Only seven active pitchers have a .650 career winning percentage with 90 or more decisions. The A's have three of them. The other 29 teams combined have four. But Hudson, Mulder and Zito can't pitch every day. And questions about the back end of this rotation (Mark Redman, Rich Harden) dropped the A's just behind the other three teams.

The reviews: "Their top three can compare with anyone." ... "The best thing about that big three is, they go out there every day." ... "Redman has been undervalued since his Detroit days, and he'll have a great year in a pitchers' park." ... "I'm not sold on Harden being even mentioned in the same breath (as the other starters)." ... "Tough in the season, questions in the postseason."

No. 5: Cubs
Mark Prior was the first pitcher 22 or younger to win 18 games in a season since Steve Avery (1990). Kerry Wood has the best career strikeout ratio (10.62 per nine IP) of any active right-handed starter. Carlos Zambrano finished seventh in the league in ERA last year. The only current NL right-handers with more strikeouts than Matt Clement the last two years are Wood, Jason Schmidt and Prior. And suppose they add Greg Maddux. ... But suppose they don't. Lack of a long track record left this Cubs group all over the map among a bunch of panelists trying to choose who's the best right now, not who will be the best in 2006.

The reviews: "The only difference between them and Houston is experience, period. If they add Maddux, they're neck and neck." ... "Prior is a No. 1, but the others, even though they have quality stuff, are No. 3's who occasionally pitch like No. 1's. No left-hander in the rotation hurts." ... "Outstanding 1-2 (Prior-Wood). But a real question at No. 5 (Juan Cruz or Jamey Wright at the moment). I'm not big on Clement. And I question makeup on Zambrano." ... "If they add Maddux, we could argue this all day."

The Phillies and Angels also got a mention, in case you're interested. But there are two beautiful things about this debate. We can keep having it for weeks. And by Halloween, we'll all know who was right.

Free Agent Rumblings

  • First off, it's time for our first offseason edition of the All Unemployed Team. Yes, all these household names are still out there, seeking gainful work:

    1B: Fred McGriff
    2B: Keith Lockhart
    SS: Tony Womack
    3B: Jose Hernandez
    LF: Rickey Henderson
    CF: Chris Singleton
    RF: Raul Mondesi
    C: Pudge Rodriguez
    DH: Ellis Burks

    Starting rotation: Greg Maddux, Pedro Astacio, Shawn Estes, Darren Oliver, John Burkett.

    Bullpen: Ugueth Urbina, Scott Sauerbeck, Dave Veres, Mark Guthrie, Jose Mesa, Antonio Osuna.

    Utility men: Mark McLemore, Ron Coomer, Terry Shumpert.

    Manager: Jerry Manuel.

    Still unemployed since last winter: Chuck Finley, Chuck Knoblauch, Greg Swindell.

  • One of the hot rumors bouncing beneath the baseball radar screen this week had Pudge Rodriguez signing with a mystery team, then giving his permission for that team to trade him back to the Marlins. Otherwise, of course, the rules say he can't sign with the Marlins before May 1.

    Well, there's just one minor problem with that scenario: It's about as legal as armed robbery.

    "That would circumvent the intent of the rule, the heart of the rule and the rule itself," says one baseball man. "The rule says he can't go back to his old team until May 1. Period."

    A free agent can agree to waive the rule that says he can't be traded by his new team until after June 15. But a trade back to his previous team before May 1 would look like a blatant attempt to circumvent the law. Which, oh-by-the-way, is exactly what that would be.

    In the meantime, sources say that even though both Rodriguez and agent Scott Boras were in Detroit in recent days to speak with the Tigers, the Tigers were still wary they were being used and were reluctant to make an offer until they were convinced Rodriguez's interest in them is sincere. Rodriguez did take a physical, though. And that's usually a sign an offer has been made.

    But despite Boras' claims he is actively negotiating with several teams and the fact that he is believed to have flown to Baltimore on Friday, one well-connected baseball source says: "At this point, Pudge has three choices -- Tigers, go back to the Marlins after May 1, or retire."

  • Why has Rodriguez had so much trouble getting that three-year deal for eight figures a year he's been campaigning for? One big reason is that, over the second half of last season, he wasn't the player he appeared to be in October.

    From July 19 through the end of the season, he hit only two home runs in 214 at-bats. In fact, he actually hit fewer homers after the All-Star break (three) than 14 other catchers -- including Brandon Inge, Adam Melhuse, Brook Fordyce and Josh Bard. And after Aug. 1, his on-base percentage was only .323, and his slugging percentage was a puny .388.

  • Then there's Maddux. Despite Boras' attempts to portray him as another hot commodity, we haven't been able to corroborate interest from any team other than the Cubs -- unless Maddux re-enacts that Andre Dawson ploy from 1987 and essentially shows up on someone's doorstep with a blank contract and says, "Fill in whatever amount works for you."

    "If he doesn't want to take that offer from the Cubs," says an official of one team that was interested earlier in the offseason, "he would have to make it a situation like Robbie Alomar and say to some team: 'Money's not an issue.' But it's hard to see Boras going for that."

  • Now that the Mets have signed one former Yankees outfielder (Karim Garcia), they could sign another one to platoon with him in right. They're still looking for a right-handed hitting outfielder, and several sources that have spoken with them say their shopping list includes Shane Spencer.

    Contract Clause of the Week
    Rod Beck -- a man who has pitched in 678 big-league games and started precisely none of them -- would cash in on a $50,000 incentive clause in his new contract with the Padres if he's the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.

    More Rumblings

  • The Dodgers continue to take heat for their failure to add an impact bat. But that takes cash. And when the bizarre condition for this team to finalize its sale involves the old owners (News Corp.) loaning the new owner (Frank McCourt) nearly half the purchase price, you can understand why GM Dan Evans has spent so much of the winter with his checkbook tied.

    "I feel sorry for Dan," says one fellow NL executive. "He's just crippled until that sale goes through."

    "This thing has to get resolved soon," says one prominent baseball man, "because the Dodgers have to add a premium player."

    The Dodgers are still believed to have interest in a large group of hitters -- from Magglio Ordonez to Richard Hidalgo to (yeah, it's still not out of the question) Nomar Garciappara. So once that sale goes down, February could be their most important month on the calendar.

  • Quick. Name the guy who was added to George Steinbrenner's payroll this winter who has more rings than Derek Jeter.

    It's Jerry Krause, of course. You were expecting maybe Miguel Cairo?

    But this is one wild Steinbrenner idea that could turn out to be more than just a publicity stunt. Scouts who know the former Bulls GM from his baseball days say Krause has a terrific feel for his once and current sport.

    "He's a very deep, very intelligent guy, and he can evaluate," says one veteran scout. "He was a great competitor as a scout, too. A lot of people looked at him as just some overweight country bumpkin, and some of the other scouts didn't want to have a lot to do with him. But he used that as incentive, and he beat a lot of those scouts out on players."

    By the way, there's no truth to the rumor the Red Sox will respond by hiring Bill Russell.

  • How good is Kazuo Matsui? Leon Lee -- who has spent much of the last 25 years playing, scouting, coaching and managing in Japan -- predicts these numbers for Matsui this year: .308, 26 homers, 80-85 RBI, 25 stolen bases. And Lee thinks Matsui will win a Gold Glove.

    We've heard Matsui described as being faster than Ichiro, a more spectacular shortstop than Rey Ordonez and more comfortable in the spotlight than Hideki Matsui. If he's really all that, the Mets have a major attraction on their hands.

  • There are very few people we've ever met in baseball like Turk Wendell. He proved again this week how unique he is -- when he actually turned down a guaranteed major-league contract from another National League team to sign an unguaranteed minor-league contract with the Rockies.

    In other words, he opted to take a lesser contract to pitch in the worst hitter's park in the solar system over a guaranteed deal with a team that won many more games last year and plays in a much more pitcher-friendly ballpark. So what the heck was he thinking?

    Well, unlike a lot of guys, he wasn't thinking about money. He told friends he took the Colorado deal because his family lives in Colorado, because GM Dan O'Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle showed consistent interest in him all winter and because (obviously) he loves a challenge. Amazing.

    "I have never known or heard of a single player who chose a minor-league contract, with an invitation to major-league spring training, over a guaranteed major-league contract," says one agent. "Never. Not ever. Not a single player."

  • Finally, we've uncovered a major theme running through the Devil Rays' offseason acquisitions. They've signed Jose Cruz Jr. And Deivi Cruz. And Ivan Cruz.

    So we're still trying to figure out how they were outbid by Cincinnati for Jacob Cruz. But why do we have a feeling that when Lou Piniella went off to get away from it all this winter, he took (what else?) a cruise?

    Stat of the Week
    The eight pitchers who held both left-handed and right-handed hitters to batting averages below .200 last season (minimum: 50 AB vs. each):

    Humorists of the Week
    We all owe Pete Rose an enormous debt of gratitude -- if only because he's the best thing to happen to late-night comedy since Ted Williams started hanging out in a freezer.

    Our favorite Rose quips:

    Fifth prize: From David Letterman's Top 10 Messages on Britney Spears' Answering Machine: "Pete Rose here. I bet 10,000 dollars on your marriage lasting a week."

    Fourth prize: From Letterman: "Pete confesses a lot of things in his book. He admits that his hair is not naturally orange."

    Third prize: From Jay Leno: "There's a great new movie out called 'Paycheck,' about a man who has parts of his memory erased. He can't remember saying or doing certain things. Oh, no, no, no, wait. That's Pete Rose."

    Second prize: From Letterman: "In the book, Pete Rose confesses to betting on baseball and other things. But that's not the worst of it. He also admits that several times, he taped the game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball."

    First prize: From Letterman's Top 10 Reasons George W. Bush Wants to Put a Man on Mars: "Pete Rose bet him we wouldn't do it."

    One Farewell Rumbling

  • He wasn't much of a household name outside of Philadelphia. But everything that John Schuerholz has been to baseball in Atlanta or Branch Rickey was to baseball in Brooklyn, that's what the great Paul Owens, who died last month at age 79, was to baseball in Philadelphia.

    Without crunching a number or holding a radar gun, Owens retained his amazing instincts for judging players and people over nearly a half-century of working for the Phillies, as a scout, scouting director, GM, manager and advisor.

    He was the charismatic architect of the only Phillies team ever to win a World Series. And as the current Phillies set out to retrace those steps, his words still echo in the head of current GM Ed Wade every day.

    Instead of looking for quick fixes, Owens always said: "Don't patch the roof." Instead of trying to hoodwink every general manager he dealt with, Owens always said: "Don't worry about who you're giving up as long as you get the guy you want." Instead of being impatient, Owens always said: "Just try to get a little better with every move you make."

    Many great leaders are described as tireless. But Owens took tireless to a whole new level. He probably made more deals at 3 a.m. than 3 p.m. And if he thought life at 3 a.m. wasn't quite as entertaining as it ought to be, he didn't hesitate to summon his friends to join him in the name of entertainment.

    One year at the winter meetings, back in Bruce Sutter's heyday, Owens gathered the Phillies press corps in his suite at 3:30 a.m. for an important announcement. Then he sauntered in from the other room, shuffling papers with a twinkle in his eye.

    He sat down, shuffled some more, then announced: "I'm tickled to tell you guys we just got Sutter." He looked around the room proudly, as his press corps suddenly jolted back to consciousness. Whereupon he thought he ought to mention one more thing:

    "That's Burke Sutter (or was it Suter?)," he said. "We just bought him from the Red Sox." Then he burst into laughter -- for about a week.

    It was Paul Owens who once said, of a pitcher he could never get to see the light: "You can lead a horse to water -- but you can't stick his friggin' head in it." And it was Paul Owens who once said, after leaving his GM office to mange the 1983 Phillies into the World Series, that the hardest part about managing was "standing up for all nine innings."

    Somehow, we find it ironic that we've spent many of our days since Owens died asking whether one of his favorite players, Pete Rose, belongs in the Hall of Fame. What we should be asking is why there is no place in the Hall of Fame for men like Paul Owens.

    Question: Jesse Orosco and Dan Plesac -- the only two pitchers in history to pitch in more than 1,000 games as setup men (i.e., games they didn't save) -- have both retired this winter. So can you name the active leader in that category now that those two are off the list? Among relievers who appeared in the big leagues last season, he's the only one who has pitched in more than 800 games which he didn't save.

    Answer: Mike Stanton (885 career appearances, only 76 saves).

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.