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Where will the Rocket land?

Where will Rocket land?

HOUSTON -- It's easy to recite that old cliche that there are only two things guaranteed in life -- death and taxes. But in baseball terms, there are two more elements that fit the bill: pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training, and Roger Clemens keeping everyone guessing on his future.

This year is no different. Certain to hold off the retirement announcement for a third year, Clemens, although yet to say it publicly, is most certainly heading back to the mound at some point this year. It's a matter of where he wants to pitch, and while 30 teams would be crazy not to be interested, it's going to come down to three teams that he's quite familiar with: the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox.

Each team offers something unique that could lure the Rocket. The Astros have the "home field" advantage, considering he's a native Houstonian. The Yankees have the baseball tradition and the drama that Clemens craves. And Boston is where it all began for Clemens 23 years ago, and finishing there would bring things full-circle as well as mend all fences that broke down when Clemens departed the Red Sox organization in 1996.

If Clemens knows where he's headed, he's not letting on, and according to comments he's made in the recent past, he won't make any kind of decisions or announcements until after the season starts.

At first glance, it would appear the Yankees may have the advantage. His good friend Andy Pettitte re-signed with New York in December, and the Yankees clearly want the Rocket back in the fold. It's likely he'll be looking for the "full-court press" they gave Pettitte. And, as history shows, what the Yankees want, the Yankees usually get.

The Astros seemingly want Clemens back, too, but the blank-check theory may not be in effect in Houston. Asked recently about the club's feeling about luring Clemens back to the Astros, club owner Drayton McLane's comments were far from the "whatever it takes, we'll do it" attitude they've had in the past.

"We'll have to look and see what the package is," McLane said. "We have had to build the team without Roger. If we had saved for Roger, and then he wasn't able to come and we didn't find that out until May, that certainly would have put us way behind.

"We already built the team, and we've got a $95 million payroll. We'll have to look at the time when [Clemens' agents] come to us and see if they're ready to go, if that's appropriate."

The Red Sox appear to have some degree of interest in Clemens, but their desire to bring him back is not as strong as it was in 2006. Their pitching staff is stacked this year with Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield, with Jon Lester and Matt Clement waiting in the wings. That means if Clemens were to sign on, a capable Major League pitcher would have to be traded or moved to the bullpen just to make room for him.

Clemens' desire to start late in the season, however, may increase Boston's interest, because by Opening Day, there will be a better read on the health of the six existing starters and just how badly (if at all) Clemens is needed in Boston. Besides, the Red Sox already have two pitchers over 40: Wakefield and Schilling.

April and May could very well be a tryout period for the three clubs. Clemens' recent comments suggesting that playing for a non-contender was a "waste of time" for him strongly hints that the 44-year-old will not join a struggling team halfway through the season.

But that raises another question: Is a 60-game sampling enough of an indicator of how a team will finish in the standings? In 2005, the Astros surely appeared to be going nowhere after a 15-30 start after seven weeks, and they wound up in the World Series. And the Red Sox were in first place last year at the All-Star break and trade deadline, but did not make the postseason.

Clemens will have an up close and personal view of how one team is progressing this spring, considering he's planning to spend extensive time with his son, Koby, a third baseman in the Astros' system. The Minor League side will hold a mini-camp prior to players reporting to Spring Training, which means the elder Clemens could be in Kissimmee right around the same time Major League position players report.

"I'll be on those back fields, and if our big league guys need some batting practice, I'll be doing that too," Clemens said recently at the Astros' Elite Pitching Camp.

The weeks Clemens spends at Spring Training will provide the perfect opportunity to get into playing shape, and the Astros will have to accept that Clemens may be using that time to get ready to pitch elsewhere. They insist that whatever he decides to do will not create any tension during Clemens' post-playing career, at which time he'll begin a 10-year personal services contact with the Astros.

But until Clemens declares he intends to play, the three interested teams can only sit by and wait.

"They have said they will let us know when they're ready to talk," McLane said. "Hopefully the time comes when they're ready. We're ready to talk."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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