And They'reOff

The Rocket Derbyis under way (again), and after showing last year, the Yankees are out of thegate with a flourish

THE COMBINATIONof Roger Clemens's famed dedication and the Yankees' desperation for pitchingwill be enough to persuade the New York front office to bend its notoriouslystrict rules should the Rocket want to return to the Bronx. For those who thinkthat the Yankees will create tension in the clubhouse if they allow Clemens toreturn home to Houston between starts, heed these words. "He's an exceptionto the rule," says shortstop and captain Derek Jeter. "It's not like[Clemens] is going to sit around his pool eating chips."

For now,Clemens—who, according to friends, was in good enough shape to have started onOpening Day—is sticking to his forecast: an 80% chance he won't come out ofretirement. No one is believing it, least of all the three teams competing inthis year's Rocket Lottery: the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros. (It should also benoted that the last time Clemens made such a pronouncement about hisretirement, he was 99% certain that he was hanging it up.)

New York had nochoice but to start Carl Pavano—on 643 days' rest, no less—in Monday's openeragainst the Devil Rays because of a hamstring injury to Chien-Ming Wang. Whilethe 44-year-old Clemens has said that he will not return before June 1 underany circumstances, the Yankees have shown they're willing to do anything shortof rolling out a 1,640-mile pinstriped carpet between Houston and the Bronx.Their efforts are not subtle, either, from signaling that they'll pay any priceto sending a steady stream of cellphone calls, text messages and other verbalbouquets ("We all love Rocket," DH Jason Giambi says) to letting himknow that he will get back his number 22. ("You've got to showrespect," says the number's current holder, second baseman RobinsonCano.)

"A month agoI wouldn't have thought the Yankees had a chance," a Clemens friend says."But they've been in touch a lot."

Clemens willalmost surely continue to "fail at retirement," as he put it; return topitch; and likely receive a prorated salary of about $25 million (up from theprorated $22 million he got from the Astros last year). And while some stillbelieve that the comforts of home will keep him in Houston—"He's clearlyseen that we've improved our offense," says Astros G.M. Tim Purpura,"and I think that will help"—never has the race been so wide open. TheYankees are the early favorites, as Clemens could not only reunite with hisbuddy Pettitte, but he would also be back in the spotlight, something thatfriends say he has missed. New York G.M. Brian Cashman, though, is cautiousabout handicapping the Rocket race. "Last year we didn't finish first,"he says, "and we didn't finish second."

That is areference to the Red Sox, to whom Clemens agreed to be traded last July (thoughthe actual talks with Houston didn't get far). Boston would afford theattention (and run support) that New York provides, not to mention thenostalgic rush that comes with finishing a Hall of Fame career where itstarted. Like their archrival, the Red Sox have said that they will go afterClemens hard, especially now that young star Jonathan Papelbon has moved backto the bullpen. As one member of the Boston organization says, Papelbon'sreturn to closer "might make us more attractive."

SI'S PREDICTION:Clemens goes back to New York to try to recapture the championship glory of1999 and 2000. Both the Yankees and the Red Sox will go all-out to get him, butNew York's rotation needs will prompt the Bombers to push just a littleharder.

SCOUT'S TAKE

Josh HamiltonCould Be a Steal

A major leaguescout on outfielder Josh Hamilton, the top pick in the 1999 draft who, aftermultiple suspensions for drug use and being made available by the Devil Rays inthis winter's Rule 5 draft, made the Reds' Opening Day roster:
"He showed a lot of ability this spring, the same sort of ability he showedin high school in 1999. His bat speed is good. His power is good. If he carriesinto the season what he showed in spring training [when he hit .403 in 72 atbats], the Reds made a very wise move. He's willing to use the whole field. Hedoesn't have Adam Dunn's kind of power, but it wouldn't surprise me if he hit20 home runs, maybe even more in [Great American Ball Park]. He's not going tobe a basestealing threat like Ryan Freel, but he's not going to hurt you on thebases, either. What's surprising is that after all he's been through, hisskills haven't diminished. He played well in the outfield. He got good reads.He got good jumps. He showed a good arm.... It brought me back."

Jon Heyman'sDaily Scoop at SI.com/baseball.

Touching 'Em All

If Jonathan Papelbon hadn't volunteered to go back tothe bullpen, the Red Sox' best trade option, Nationals closer Chad Cordero,would have come at a high price. According to a league source, Washington wasseeking pitchers Clay Buchholz, 22; Craig Hansen, 23; and Jon Lester, 23.Boston likes Cordero's moxie but saw that request as "ridiculous." ...With the Tigers losing Kenny Rogers (blood clot) for three months, it's hard toname a team with five proven starters. The Phillies come the closest, thoughFreddy Garcia's radar readings this spring (low to mid-80s) are a concern....One reason why Orioles owner Peter Angelos vetoed a winter deal that would havesent second baseman Brian Roberts and righthander Hayden Penn to the Braves forfirst baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Marcus Giles is that he's a hugefan of Roberts. Another reason: According to a league source, Angelos alsowants to leave first base clear for the Rangers' Mark Teixeira (above), who's afree agent in 2008. Teixeira, a Maryland native, recently said it would be a"dream come true" to play in Baltimore.... For those who claim therewere no free-agent bargains, I point to Mets outfielder Moises Alou ($8.5million, one year), Dodgers starter Randy Wolf ($8 million, one year), Tigersfirst baseman Sean Casey ($4 million, one year) and Orioles reliever ChadBradford ($10.5 million, three years).

Consider This by Baseball Prospectus

APRIL FOOLS IN BASEBALL.
When the calendar turned to May in 2006, the Tigers' Chris Shelton was tied forthe American League lead with 10 home runs—he would end his year with 16—whilethe Rockies, Reds and Rangers led their divisions. (They would each finish withlosing records.) For players with something to prove, however, April can bepivotal. Here are three to watch closely this month.

Mark Buehrle, LHP, White Sox
His velocity was down in the second half of 2006, resulting in a 6.44 ERA afterthe All-Star break. Buehrle hired a personal trainer this winter and committedto a new conditioning program, but his 6.95 ERA in spring training did notreflect all that hard work. If Buehrle is going to get back to being thepitcher who averaged 16 wins from 2001 through '05, it will be clear soonerrather than later.

Alex Rios, OF, Blue Jays
He was two different hitters last season. In the first half he transformedhimself into a power hitter, launching 15 home runs by June 14 after hittingall of 10 in 2005. Rios suffered a staph infection two weeks later, though, andwhen he returned, he was unable to pull the ball; he hit just two more homeruns in his final 31 games. The real Rios should stand up in April.

Jason Jennings (left), RHP, Astros
Houston is gambling that his 3.56 ERA in 15 starts at Coors Field last seasonwas no fluke. But because 2006 was the Year of the Humidor in Colorado,statistics there are almost impossible to interpret. How Jennings performs inhis first few starts at Minute Maid Park—itself no paradise for pitchers—shouldreveal a great deal about whether he's the No. 2 starter that the Astrosthought they had traded for.

PHOTODAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS; HATS BY SI IMAGINGCAP ROOM The Sox, Yanks and Astros will have to offer a pro-rated $25 million for Clemens. TWO PHOTOSDAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS; HATS BY SI IMAGING[See caption above] PHOTOERICK W. RASCO (TEIXEIRA) PHOTOAL BEHRMAN/AP (HAMILTON)NO JOSHING Hamilton showed all five tools in the spring with the Reds, including solid baserunning and 20-homer power. PHOTOED WOLFSTEIN/ICON SMI (JENNINGS)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)