Clemens may set precedent for veterans
Astros GM Purpura expects to see more short-season deals
When the Houston Astros signed free agent Roger Clemens during the winter of 2004, some of the inducements that convinced the seven-time Cy Young Award winner to postpone retirement were uncommon perks, such as one that allowed Clemens to skip road trips when he wasn't scheduled to pitch.
The Astros and Clemens kept that agreement in subsequent arrangements, and the two sides went even further in their extraordinary arrangement in agreeing to have Clemens return in June 2006, after his duties with the World Baseball Classic were completed.
Such perks may have raised eyebrows among traditionalists who view commitment to a 162-game schedule as sacrosanct for all but injured players, but the success Clemens and the Astros enjoyed from the arrangement could convince other players and teams to seek more of these short-season deals in the future.
"I think deals of this kind are more likely because we're seeing more and more guys play well into their 40s, because the training methods are so much better these days [and] guys are in excellent shape for a lot longer," Houston general manager Tim Purpura said. "Careers are longer. At that stage of their careers, a half-season makes more sense than a full season for a lot of these guys.
"As more and more pitchers are staying productive into their 40s, more and more teams are going to be interested in doing this."
Clemens' deal drew a lot of national attention, but obviously he's not the first pitcher to receive special considerations.
The Astros gave Clemens leeway similar to what the Texas Rangers gave Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan during Ryan's last season in 1993. Clemens, like Ryan, was allowed to watch his son play now and then on days when he was not scheduled to pitch. Clemens was also allowed to occassionally arrive late on days he wasn't pitching.
Like Ryan, who signed a 10-year personal services contract with the Rangers upon his retirement, Clemens will have a similar arrangement with the Astros when his playing days are done.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to have one of the greatest pitchers to ever put on a uniform," Gerry Hunsicker, currently Tampa Bay's senior vice president of baseball operations but Houston's GM during Clemens' first deal with the Astros, said at the time. "We have agreed to some things that, while they may be out of the ordinary, they were certainly not unreasonable requests given Roger's stature and what he brings to this organization."
"One of the biggest factors in this decision is Houston is my home and the only place I could play and still get a chance to be with my family more than I have been in the past," Clemens said. "This is my home, and the chance to play at home and be a part of an organization I have admired for some time were very important to me."
Hunsicker's successor, Purpura, worked to incorporate similar incentives in Clemens' 2005 deal worth $18 million, the most ever for a single season for a pitcher. Last year, Clemens' annual salary was $22 million, prorated to coincide with his late-May return.
The money was unprecedented, but it certainly wasn't the first time in recent years teams have gone after pitchers in the hopes of securing their services for at least part of the season.
In the winter of 2001, several teams were interested in Jeff Shaw even though the right-hander had made it clear he planned to retire.
Shaw made the All-Star team in 2001 and finished second in the National League with 43 saves. Only 34, several teams were interested in his services, but Shaw decided to stay home in Ohio rather than pitch again.
Several teams were interested in 40-year-old Chuck Finley for all or part of the 2003 season, but the veteran lefty decided to stay retired.
This spring, there are nearly two dozen players 40 or older on Major League rosters. Purpura wouldn't be surprised to see more partial-season contracts in the future, for multiple reasons, such as cost effectiveness and the anticipated production the 40-somethings can give provided their talents are used judiciously.
He doesn't, however, believe it will be practical for position players or relievers. Starting pitchers, who generally work every five days, are a different matter.
"I would say it would be difficult for a hitter to be put in a similar situation and do well with it," Purpura said. "I think it would be hard for a position player to have an arrangement like this, because hitters need to be out there every day, they typically can't take three or four days off and step right back in. With starting pitchers, obviously, it's different."
This year three teams, the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees, all appear willing to sign Clemens to a partial-season deal, while hoping the future Hall of Famer decides to pitch for them in 2007.
Purpura would gladly pull the trigger on another short-season deal with Clemens. And while he believes there may be more deals of this nature in baseball's future, he doesn't expect to see one with all the bells and whistles Clemens' recent contracts contained.
"It would depend on the circumstances," Purpura said. "At the time we made the deal with Roger, it was certainly an inducement. But it's not for everybody. When somebody wins 300 games and wins [seven] Cy Young Awards, we'll be happy to consider a similar arrangement."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.