Oswalt, Berkman ponder their uncertain futures

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They hear the rumors. Roy Oswalt(notes) might go to New York. Or Washington. Or Texas. And Lance Berkman(notes) fits perfectly with the Angels. Or Tampa Bay. Or San Francisco. Anywhere but Houston, their baseball home for a combined 22 seasons now.

Berkman doesn’t buy it.

“I think it’s unlikely they’re going to work something out for Roy, and he’s a lot more attractive trade candidate for another team,” he told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday. “It’s an even longer shot something’s going to happen with me.”

Lance Berkman's lucrative contract and mediocre year make him a difficult trade prospect.
(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ever the realist, Berkman understands what could make this June and July far different than those of the past. The confluence of two factors – the high value of prospects and the steep cost to pick up veterans’ contracts – could skew the trade market wildly and make position players such as Oswalt and Berkman far less desirable than their numbers and histories would indicate.

Welcome to deadline 2010, where veterans yearning to chase a championship could end up stuck with a going-nowhere team because contenders simply don’t have the financial wherewithal to take on the $8.7 million owed Berkman this year (plus the $2 million for a buyout on his 2011 option) or the $25 million due to Oswalt for this year and next (plus another $2 million for his buyout).

It’s the albatross contract seen through a funhouse mirror: one that actually harms the player, too.

“The baseball landscape has changed,” Berkman said. “Teams value their prospects more than they ever have. I’m 34. I’m not having a great year. Who knows how many more years I’ve got left or what my production’s going to be? As a slugger, you get into your mid-to-late 30s, start struggling, and then it’s like you might be done. I don’t blame somebody for thinking that.”

Berkman was here for another Astros loss Tuesday, the 40th this year in 65 games. He and Oswalt were part of the core that reached the playoffs six times between 1997 and 2005 – to still be around amid the perfunctory losing gnaws at them. Berkman is 34, Oswalt 32, and each, like any ringless player who can see his baseball mortality, wants to contend just once more.

They express it in different ways. Oswalt is as introverted as Berkman is extroverted, and the process still leaves him uncomfortable. Playing baseball is hard enough. Doing so while bandied about from trade rumor to trade rumor makes it all the more difficult.

“From the very beginning, people said I demanded a trade out of Houston,” Oswalt said. “It never came up like that. It was more of talk between the organization and me, what direction we’re going in.

“If they’re going that route, where they’re going to try to be competitive down the road, a trade for both parties would be beneficial.”

To hear Oswalt say that – and to hear Berkman concur – is dispiriting for a Houston fanbase already frightened by an old, bad major league team and a minor league system with little in the way of reinforcements. Oswalt and Berkman conjure up images of success, and of the Bagwell-and-Biggio glory days, and of the romantic notion that a player might spend his entire career in one uniform.

Only Chipper Jones(notes), Derek Jeter(notes), Todd Helton(notes) and Eric Chavez(notes) have spent more time with their teams than Berkman. Oswalt is seventh on the list. Each relishes the idea of being a Tony Gwynn(notes), a Cal Ripken Jr., a George Brett – a city’s treasure. Both also get the business.

“If things continue like they are, they’re probably not going to pick [his $15 million option] up,” Berkman said.

Roy Oswalt believes that a trade would be "beneficial for both sides."
(Pat Sullivan/AP Photo)

So he considers the alternatives. Like Oswalt, Berkman has a full no-trade clause. Unlike Oswalt, whose 3.16 earned-run average ranks among the top 25 in the National League, Berkman’s numbers this season have been pedestrian. His batting average (.238), on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.392) are lower than they’ve been since his rookie season in 1999. Teams that need a first baseman, like the Angels, would have to weigh not only Berkman’s salary but also whether his lost production would return.

Berkman likewise would evaluate the team. Even though the Angels are within two games of first-place Texas in the American League West, he is unsure whether he would accept a deal there.

“That wouldn’t be an automatic yes,” Berkman said. “That would be a long, hard thought. Especially because I’d rather go east than west.

“It would have to be a contender. There is absolutely no way I would consent to going somewhere that didn’t have a good chance not just to get to the playoffs, but to win the whole thing. That would be consideration No. 1.”

Though Oswalt won’t cop to any particulars, his desire to leave is obvious. The prospect of another season in a rebuilding purgatory this late into his career is off-putting. As is, one general manager acknowledged last week, the idea of guaranteeing Oswalt the kind of money elite pitchers receive on the free-agent market.

“I’ve heard a few things about money here and there,” Oswalt said. “It all boils down to who needs starting pitching. It’s not about the money with some teams.”

Oswalt can only hope. He has won 141 games for Houston. Four more and he passes Joe Niekro for the franchise record. He has put up a 3.23 career ERA. Oswalt was the bridge between Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte(notes) to the new generation of pitching the Astros have never developed. Houston gave Oswalt a five-year, $73 million extension in August 2006 to ensure he remained a face of the franchise. For Oswalt, it was all the security he would ever need.

And it’s secure, all right. So tight that it might shackle him to the Disastros and simply not let go.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jun 16, 2010