The Houston Astros were in town last week, and Roy Oswalt and his old catcher went out to lunch.
Brad Ausmus found out on Tuesday what we all did on Friday: Oswalt wants out of Houston. There is an ace on the market.
So here we are again, back where we were last summer.
The Dodgers have a good team, certainly good enough to win the National League West. The Dodgers have a good offense, a very good one when Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal come off the disabled list. The Dodgers have a good bullpen, upgraded with the return of Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo.
The Dodgers are good enough to play into October. Oswalt would make them good enough to play all the way through October, and into their first World Series in 22 years.
"When you get to the postseason," Manager Joe Torre said Saturday, "it's, 'How good is your pitching?' "
That's not a slap at the kids. Clayton Kershaw, the budding ace, has had one poor start in nine this season. Chad Billingsley, who faded so dramatically last summer that the Dodgers did not start him in the playoffs, has given up two runs or fewer in five of his last six starts.
"Now he's done enough where you don't wonder any more — and he doesn't wonder — when he goes out there," Torre said. "Kershaw has been what you would have hoped, after last year, you would see."
Torre can't flat out say he wants Oswalt, at least not publicly. But his eyes fairly twinkle when you ask what Oswalt could do for a team.
"He's one of those No. 1 guys," Torre said. "When you have one of the guys of that quality — like Roy Halladay was talked about last year, or Cliff Lee — for certain that type of pitcher changes the way not only you look at yourself, but the way other clubs look at you."
Those names were not random ones. The Dodgers missed on Halladay and Lee last summer, and again last winter. When Torre selected Vicente Padilla as the Dodgers' opening-day starter, he made a point of saying how the club did not have a No. 1 starter.
Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager, would not say Saturday whether he had talked about Oswalt with his Houston counterpart Ed Wade. He said he would like to evaluate the Dodgers' rotation after Padilla comes off the disabled list before considering any trades.
However, he said, "I sense we'll be in the market for pitching after the All-Star break."
Does he have a sense as to whether the Dodgers would be in the market for an ace like Oswalt?
"I do have a sense," Colletti said.
Does he know whether the Dodgers might take on significant salary during the season, which they have not done at each of the last two July trade deadlines?
"I haven't asked the question," he said. "I haven't been told no."
The signs do not appear favorable. If the Dodgers were to acquire Oswalt halfway through this season, they would owe him $7.5 million this year and $16 million next year — and perhaps another $16 million in 2012, if he asks them to guarantee his option year in exchange for waiving his no-trade clause.
According to the most recent financial documents filed in the McCourt divorce proceedings, the Dodgers have budgeted for a payroll of $100 million next year and $104 million in 2012, with neither figure large enough to accommodate Oswalt without sacrificing elsewhere.
Manny Ramirez has said he'll be gone next year, but his salary won't be. He is listed as earning $20 million this year, but so much of his salary is deferred that the Dodgers' payments to him barely drop — $10 million this year, $8.5 million next year.
That the Dodgers have given five starts to Charlie Haeger and two to Ramon Ortiz does not speak well of their ability to provide the Astros with major league-ready pitching to replace Oswalt. And, by failing to offer salary arbitration to Randy Wolf, the Dodgers forfeited the two extra draft picks that would make it easier for a thin farm system to absorb trading multiple prospects for Oswalt.
Yet, the Oswalt derby could tilt in the Dodgers' favor. The usual suspects would not appear to be interested, although you wonder whether the Boston Red Sox would have signed Josh Beckett to a four-year extension last month had they known they could have secured Oswalt for similar money and fewer years. The New York Yankees could stash Oswalt in the fifth spot now and use him to replace Andy Pettitte next year, but that might be overkill even for them.
Oswalt, 32, is 2-6 with a 2.66 earned-run average, the result of the worst run support in the National League.
"This is more of a pitcher's park than Houston," Ausmus said, "so I think he could be even better here."
Ausmus discounted reports that Oswalt might limit his options to teams close to his Mississippi home.
"He would prefer to stay in Houston, if they were winning," Ausmus said. "But he understands his clock is ticking on his best years, and he wants to be part of a world championship team.
"Roy also wants to be on a team that has offense. I would hope this would be a team he would say OK to if, some way, somehow, a deal could be struck.… I don't think there's anyone in this clubhouse that wouldn't love to have him."
The Dodgers say the McCourt divorce is not hindering the team, that the money spent on lawyers and support payments has nothing to do with the money spent on players. A rotation led by Oswalt, Kershaw and Billingsley would be proof positive.
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