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Houston's horrendous spring, best bargains of the winter and more

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Astros made it to 15 or 16 straight losses here on Thursday. Lance Berkman wasn't sure which it was. And frankly, he didn't care.

Of course, Berkman may have been distracted during his interview Thursday afternoon by all the Mets circling the bases on the nearby TV or perhaps by another Astro who was letting out a blood-curdling type scream in the runway between the dugout and the clubhouse. It didn't sound like manager Cecil Cooper's voice. But it may as well have been.

Anyway, Berkman wasn't sure how many straight they'd lost -- 15 or 16 -- and as far as he's concerned, they may as well run out the string this spring. "If we're going to be bad," the longtime Astros star said, "we might as well be historically bad."

Historically bad? Maybe. Pathetically bad? Most definitely.

To be precise, the Astros made it 16-straight defeats with Thursday's 12-1 loss in a game in which Houston made three errors before posting a hit against the Mets' excellent young starter Mike Pelfrey.

"Spring records mean nothing, but that's a little extreme," one American League scout said.

This is how it's going for the Astros, who haven't won a game since beating the Yankees in their spring opener and have been outscored 131-53 while generally looking like the worst team ever.

"I'm sure the fans are in full panic mode," Berkman allowed.

As for Berkman himself, he isn't the least bit concerned. He looks at the 1-16-3 record (yes, they've had three ties) and sees nothing to worry about. "I think this is an anomaly," Berkman said. "It has no bearing on what we're going to do. I'm not the least bit concerned. Frankly, I couldn't care less."

In fact, he opined that he puts "zero stock" in their record. "If we were 15-1, does that make us World Series favorites?"

Umm, no. But this surely doesn't either.

Berkman pointed out that the Astros frequently turn out better than folks suspect. (Disclaimer: This applies to me. I have a history of picking the Astros very low, and they have a history of exceeding my expectations.)

I see five quality major-league players -- maybe six counting new arrival Pudge Rodriguez,who came to camp Thursday to begin his physical after agreeing to come catch for $1.5 million plus incentives -- and a team full of extras. Rodriguez declared to Houston writers that the Astros are a "good team" upon showing up at camp. (He must be delirious after finally signing.)

Rodriguez does close a major hole. The catchers they had in camp, Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles, didn't appear to be able to hit. But more problems remain.

Still, Berkman looks around and sees possibilities. "We believe we're going to win," he said. "This organization is used to winning. We expect to win."

Berkman references the 2006 Cardinals, which may be the worst team to win the World Series. "The Cardinals won the World Series with not anything more than we have now," Berkman said.

"We have arguably the best pitcher in the National League. We have the guy who led the league in saves the last two years," Berkman said, speaking of Roy Oswalt and Jose Valverde. "With myself and Carlos Lee, we have a pretty good 3-4 combo."

All true. Although, he does admit there are a few issues.

"The depth is a problem," he said. "We're not deep in the starting rotation."

The problem is the Astros' farm system, which isn't keeping up lately. That may largely account for the 1-16-3 record. One scout said the only viable pitcher they have on the horizon appears to be Bud Norris. One decent pitcher on the way doesn't represent depth.

Cooper hasn't been as low-key about all the losses as Berkman. Occasionally, he's made remarks in the press about not being happy about the way they are playing. Perhaps with those sort of comments, he is talking to the owner Drayton McLane, a well-known worrier and meddler.

But perhaps he is genuinely worried. If I were him, I would be, too.

Not too long ago I listed the best contracts from a player perspective in this wild, weird winter. These are the opposite, the best from a team standpoint. Many of them were late signings, after the market shockingly collapsed. But some are just players I think will have a big year. Pudge makes the list, even if he didn't hit a lick for the Yankees late last year.

1) Orlando Cabrera, A's, $4 million, one year: A solid performer in either league who's now surpassed his chief rival, Edgar Renteria (though not in terms of his contract, since Renteria got $18.5 million over two years from the Giants). It was Renteria's rumored deal that ensured Cabrera wouldn't take the White Sox's offer to arbitrate -- though GM Ken Williams' public statement that Cabrera would be a utilityman if he came back probably didn't help, either. Anyway, Oakland's happy to have him.

2) Bobby Abreu, Angels, $5 million: After bidding $160 million for Mark Teixeira and failing to keep him, the Angels got a great deal, replacing Teixeira in the lineup with Abreu, who's the only man in baseball history with 200 home runs, 300 stolen bases, a .400 slugging percentage and a .300 batting average. After making a robust $16 million last year, and generally being paid very high throughout his career, he thought he'd try to land a $48 million, three-year deal after the Yankees didn't offer him arbitration (wisely, in retrospect). And going on the stats, it didn't seem completely crazy. He told a Yankees person during last season there was no way he'd accept $20 million over two, no real surprise since his stats were holding up. He may be unfairly hurt by a rep as something of a stats guy, but he's just a good guy who cares about his team and his stats. He looks a little heavy in the WBC, but he's been there before. He'll get it together, as he always does.

3) Jon Garland, Diamondbacks, $6.25 million, one year: He got basically the same money as 45-year-old Randy Johnson, who they happily let go to San Francisco (Johnson looks good in Giants camp). An innings-eater who's a mortal lock for 190 innings and 12 wins. Very solid No. 3 pitcher. Great pickup.

4) Adam Dunn, Nationals, $20 million, two years: This guy has all-time-type power, and it's a surprise his market was practically nonexistent. Sure, he's one dimensional. But shouldn't some AL team have seen the value? Had to settle for one-fifth of what he was supposedly shooting for (at least according to Brandon Phillips), and to get that, he had to take it from the Nationals.

5) John Smoltz, Red Sox, $5 million, one year: This is viewed as a very good deal by the agent, and perhaps it is, considering Smoltz won only three games last year and is coming off shoulder surgery. However, any bet on Smoltz is a good one in my book. The Red Sox are one of maybe five teams that can afford to spend this type of money on a maybe. But if you're going to take a risk on someone, this is the guy.

6) Francisco Rodriguez, Mets, $37 million, three years: It seemed like an absolute bargain at the time, considering K-Rod turned down about $33 million over three the spring before setting the all-time save record with 62. However, as the winter wore on, it looked about right. In any case, this guy is just tremendous, as he's showing the WBC. I'm still not sure why the Angels let him go beyond liking CC Sabathia and Teixeira better.

7) Rocco Baldelli, Red Sox, $500,000 plus incentives, one year: Tremendous athlete is limited by his rare ailment to the point where it's uncertain he can ever play nine innings at a time. Yet, superior athleticism means he'll have his moments.

8) Pat Burrell, Rays, $16 million, two years: The deal looked like a steal when signed. But after awhile, some stars went for even less. In any case, he'll bring the right-handed pop they needed.

9) Orlando Hudson, Dodgers, $3.38 million, one year: The wrist injury's a tad worrisome. But at one-tenth the contract that Brian Roberts got from Baltimore, this is still a steal.

10) Tom Glavine, Braves, $1 million plus incentives, one year:Pedro Martinez cited this deal as one he wouldn't want to repeat. However, the Braves knew family-man Glavine wanted to come back after double surgery and wasn't about to move to play for the awful Nationals.

11) Ivan Rodriguez, Astros, $1.5 million plus incentives, one year: Big upgrade for them.

12) Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, $2 million plus incentives, one year: Perhaps his knee injury's the reason he lost his power in the second half last year. If so, he may be the biggest bargain of all.

13) Garret Anderson, Braves, $2.5 million, one year: A nice consolation prize after losing out on Griffey.

Andruw Jones has accepted the Rangers' offer to remain with the organization for at least a few more days, according to sources. The Rangers had asked Jones to put off a decision Friday as to whether to leave the organization. Texas extended the offer with Jones beginning to show signs of regaining his swing the last couple days.

Jones -- who hit two home runs Thursday in a minor-league game -- was to decide Friday whether to declare his free agency. Jones' contract stipulates that he can opt for free agency if he's not added to the roster. But the five-time All-Star has decided to stay with the Rangers for at least a few more days.

Jones started off slow, with 14 strikeouts in 31 major-league at-bats, but he is showing signs of becoming himself again now, and the Rangers may be the best spot for Jones since Rudy Jaramillo, perhaps the best hitting coach in the game, is starting to bring out the old Andruw.

If Jones does eventually decide to leave, the Yankees, Braves and Phillies were among teams showing interest before he decided to join Jaramillo with the Rangers. The Yankees like what Brett Gardner's doing in center this spring, but a Yankees person hedged when I asked Thursday whether they'd pursue Jones again if he became free.

The Rangers told Jones a couple days ago he probably wouldn't make the Opening Day roster, but they were interested in keeping him in the organization beyond Friday's deadline. However, with Jones now powering the ball, even in minor-league games, the Rangers want to keep him in the fold.

Jones could eventually decide to leave, as Texas is set with a strong, young outfield that includes Josh Hamilton, David Murphy and Nelson Cruz. Marlon Byrd is a nice backup, as well. But perhaps if the Rangers could trade either Byrd or Frank Catalanotto, they could still make room for Jones.

• Mets manager Jerry Manuel seems quite comfortable with Livan Hernandez as his No. 5 starter. (It's worth noting Manuel was a coach on the 1997 Marlins team Hernandez led to a World Series title.) Manuel has spoke out before when he felt help was needed -- when he wanted relief help (it came in the form of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz), starting-pitching help (it came with Oliver Perez) and hitting help (the Mets didn't answer that call, allowing Manny Ramirez to go to the Dodgers). However, Manuel is speaking highly of Hernandez, suggesting he agrees with the consensus that they shouldn't meet Pedro's asking price of $45 million-plus.

• A part of the Mets' hierarchy saw some value in making a play for Pudge, who would've given them Hall-of-Fame leadership behind the plate. Brian Schneider was something less than a complete success last year, and thoughts of Pudge came up a few days late when Schneider had to take a few days off with a knee/calf injury. The Mets' backup, Ramon Castro, has talent but irked team decision-makers when he declined a chance for more playing time two winters ago, bringing his dedication into question.

• The Twins did dispatch a scout to watch Rodriguez, as Joe Mauer's back is still an issue. And while their report on Pudge was good, the decision to stand pat suggests they may feel OK about Mauer's chances to come back soon (though Opening Day looks like a long shot right now). Mauer's pain is something of a mystery, though, and came to light after what was seen as successful kidney surgery.

• Boston's Clay Buchholz has been much more aggressive with his fastball and looks much improved from last year. The Red Sox remain uninterested in the Rangers' proposal from a few months ago of Jarrod Saltalamacchia for Buchholz.

Brandon McCarthy, who hasn't yet fulfilled his promised in Texas, has looked very good in Rangers camp thus far. "Fingers crossed," is the way a Rangers person put it.

• I have to admit, I snickered at reliever Julian Tavarez's slightly off-color quote comparing signing with the Nationals late in the winter to picking up an ugly woman near closing time. After awhile, according to Tavarez, that ugly woman starts to look like J-Lo.

Joe Beimel joined Tavarez with the J-Los, er, I mean the Nats.

• The Padres are the Cactus version of the Astros. But they have an excuse: Jake Peavy, Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell are at the WBC.

• The Padres may regret sweeping the Nationals in games 154 through 156 last year. By doing so, it cost San Diego a chance to select right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who's become a legend at San Diego State. He looks like a once-in-a-decade talent. Finally, some good news for the Nats.

Scot Gregor of the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald suggests Chicago-area native Kenny Lofton as a possibility to solve the White Sox's center-field question. Not a terrible idea.

Carlos Beltran spoke out on behalf of the WBC after returning to Mets camp. "The Classic is good," he said. "It helps you prepare for the season faster. But you can't lose perspective. This [training with your big-league team] is what's really important."

• Team USA didn't do a very good job making sure there was enough positional depth on the provisional roster. So now they'll go on without a true first baseman. Meanwhile, they have more pitchers available than they know what to do with.

• Can't blame the Blue Jays for signing Netherlands pitcher Leon Boyd. Maybe a few more of their pitchers should be signed up. And maybe Netherlands pitching coach Bert Blyleven, too. (Though his fine performance in the WBC shouldn't affect his Hall of Fame chances.)

• One advantage to signing late: More words have been written about Will Ohman and where he might go than just about anyone but Manny and Teixeira this winter. The suspense is killing me.

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