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Wishing Carefully

As the proverb says -- you better be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. The econ version of this saying might be -- make sure you wish "at the margin." The Astros received their wish -- the Rocket and his pitching prowess -- and now are paying the piper.

Roger Clemens' last start offers a small glimpse of the Houston's problems. He pitched eight innings, giving up two runs, and the Astros lost 9-0. On the season his ERA is 1.30 while his record is only 3-3. Among writers and fans, issue is always, if only the Astros had some hitting to go with the pitching [for example, Blog from a Houston Chronicle sportswriter].

The Astros' faced the off-season decision whether to spend $18 million on Clemens or to spread the $18 million around on other acquisitions taking into account the team's anticipated strengths and weaknesses. Skip and I both wrote in the offseason about whether to sign Carlos Beltran. In isolation, the amount seemed like a lot, but given the Astros' situation and viewing it against the Clemens decision, it now seems like a bargain. Given that Jeff Bagwell's offensive numbers had begun to drop substantially (200 points off his OPS plateau plus a gimpy right shoulder), the loss of top RBI man, Jeff Kent, an injury to Lance Berkman, and the age of Craig Biggio, the marginal value of an extra dollar spent on an offensive sparkplug likely exceeded the value of an additional pitcher even of Clemens' caliber. After all, the Astros already possessed a young version of Clemens in Roy Oswalt (compare Oswalt's numbers to Clemens at the same career stage). Diminishing returns to signing a second "ace" pitcher set at some point, especially with the price tag attached.

Generalizing beyond the Clemens-Beltran issue, Houston offers a dramatic illustration of the fact that to excel in team sports requires a team -- not a high-priced superstar or two chewing up the team bankroll (basketball the possible exception with so few players). Clemens ($18M), Bagwell ($18M), and Andy Pettite ($8.5M) make up about 65 percent of the team's payroll -- an amount nearly equal to the Rangers' entire payroll. Besides Beltran, this $44 million would go a long way in providing another strong position player or two (catcher or SS being big needs) along with pitcher or two. Clemens is a great pitcher but very expensive for a player being used every 5th game. Bagwell's salary is commensurate with his career peak, not the form of the last three years. Pettite's salary exceeds Oswalt's by $2.5 million even though Pettite's career numbers are not in his league. Once again, I will push the theme that it's not just the amount of money available that matters but how they spend it.