For Astros' core, aging a reality
World Series title only remaining aspiration for group of four
HOUSTON -- The aging group of players that provides veteran leadership for the Astros doesn't need a calendar to be reminded time is slowly running out on their baseball careers.
Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada don't run as fast as they once did when they were in their 20s, and getting out of bed now comes with more aches and pains than they had when they were rookies. Simply put, they're getting old.
And with the Astros likely heading toward their fourth consecutive season without a playoff berth and the immediate future of the franchise uncertain, you can't help but wonder how many more chances they will have to win that elusive World Series ring.
"I think about it all the time, especially if I'm going to stay on my game plan," said Oswalt, the staff ace who hinted that he plans to retire when his current contract expires at the end of the 2011 season. "I have two more years. Time is running out. That's why I'm trying to push them not to look two years down the road. I'm looking at next year, and the better we can get now, the better we can be next year."
Oswalt and Berkman helped the Astros reach the World Series in 2005, when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox. Houston made late-season surges in 2006 and '08 but was eliminated on the final weekend of the season, and the team's core has aged during that span.
On Opening Day next year, Oswalt will be 32, Berkman 34, Lee 33 and Tejada 35. Tejada is a free agent after this season, but he wants to remain in Houston, even if it means moving to third base. Berkman is signed through next year and Lee through 2012.
"Getting to the World Series is not something you can plan," said Tejada, who led the Oakland A's to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons (2000-03) but never to the World Series. "I'm going to play this game to get to the playoffs and the World Series, but if I don't get there, it's not a disappointment because many guys don't get to the World Series."
Because of budget restraints, the Astros are unlikely to be big spenders in the free-agent market, and while their farm system is improving, they still lack top-notch prospects who could help fill gaps next year. This is what worries Oswalt the most.
"Everyone says we have great prospects in A ball," Oswalt said. "That's great for the organization, but I'm looking at now. I tell [owner] Drayton [McLane] all the time, 'The reason I signed here is I want to win, and let's do what we can do to win in the next two years.' Time is running out on me."
Berkman, a five-time All-Star who will have made nearly $100 million in his career when his current contract expires, says winning a World Series is the only remaining thing he wants to accomplish in his career.
"All of the individual stuff is already taken care of," Berkman said. "You're an established Major League veteran. When you get to 10-plus years in the big leagues, you've made your money and been on All-Star teams. Really, the only thing that's left is the World Series and winning a ring. That's the goal.
"We'd all love to do that, and that's why we play. But if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to feel like my career is a bust. If my career would end today, I'd be perfectly happy with everything that's happened. I'd love to win a World Series, but it's not like I spend a whole lot of time saying, 'It doesn't look like we're going to get it done.' You just go out there and play the games.
"I would like to get back to the playoffs and give ourselves another chance to make a run at it."
Berkman doesn't expect McLane to raise Houston's payroll to unprecedented heights to bring in free agents just so he and his fellow veterans don't finish their careers without a ring.
"Nobody owes us anything," Berkman said. "I know Drayton is loath to rebuild or even have the word mentioned, but the reality is at some point, there's going to be a transition and they've got to look at the next 10 years in the organization. I won't be around then. They've got to do what's best for the health of the organization."
Oswalt, who won an Olympic Gold Medal in 2000, says winning a World Series would round out his career.
"That's what I set out to do," Oswalt said. "I played 10 years and got close, but if you don't win the whole thing, it doesn't mean a whole lot. I've got a ring at every level I have played so far, and I need one more to complete the set."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.