Oswalt less of a risk than it might seem
Veteran has had back issues but he's always been a winner
One of the more intriguing pitchers still on the open market is veteran Roy Oswalt.
Though Oswalt's record of achievement over a number of seasons is beyond dispute, he is currently in a gray area, as back problems limited both his performance and his availability in 2011. In the Phillies' rotation last year, any shortcomings were particularly noticeable. And Oswalt, a leader of rotations in the past, suffered by comparison in that star-studded group of starters.
At age 34, the question naturally must be asked: Is this season the start of an inevitable downturn brought on by the usual accumulation of years and their attendant wear and tear? Or can Oswalt regain enough of his form to become a fully contributing starter on a legitimate postseason contender?
If a one-year contract is all it takes to answer that last question, then there should be some takers. The Boston Red Sox have been most prominently mentioned as a likely landing spot for Oswalt, and that would unquestionably make sense. The Red Sox still have an imposing lineup, but they could use additional pitching, both in quality and quantity. The spring climate in the region of Fenway Park doesn't suggest itself as ideal for a 34-year-old returning from back problems, but otherwise the parties seem well-matched.
For a pitcher, however, there are neighborhoods much friendlier than the American League East. It is possible that Oswalt looks better to the Red Sox than the Red Sox look to Oswalt. But the one thing that has characterized Oswalt's career -- besides the obvious success -- is the fact that he has been a fierce competitor. As much as the AL East might be viewed as a pitcher's nightmare, in this context, for Oswalt, it could be an ideal spot for a career revival.
Phil Garner, who managed Oswalt in some of the pitcher's best seasons -- including when the Astros went to the World Series in 2005 -- once described Oswalt as "not only tough, but country-tough."
By this, Garner explained, he meant in part that Oswalt pitched with a chip-on-his-shoulder approach. Oswalt was not a big guy, but his stuff was big, and his will to compete was always in his favor.
There was a moment in Spring Training in 2004 when you got a glimpse of that version of Oswalt. Roger Clemens was reporting to Houston's camp for the start of what would be a three-season sojourn with the Astros. Oswalt was only three seasons into his big league career at that point, but he was already 43-17.
The Rocket drew a big media crowd, and there were many reporters who, filling out the Clemens story, went to other Astros pitchers. The journalists' goal was to get the hurlers to say how great it would be to be influenced by Clemens, to learn from Clemens.
As we look back with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps these pitchers would have been better off not being influenced by Clemens. In any case, Oswalt heard these questions repeatedly, about learning from the big guy, the Rocket, the great one. Finally, Oswalt had enough. He didn't snap. He didn't growl. He was still smiling when he suggested forcefully to reporters that maybe one day he, Roy Oswalt, would be considered good enough that other pitchers might learn from him.
He was right about that, in a very big way. It wasn't all that long ago that the Astros were consistently one of baseball's best teams, and Roy Oswalt was one of the major factors to that success. He had back-to-back 20-victory seasons in 2004-05, and over the first eight years of his career, he had a stunning winning percentage of .668. Despite the Astros' more recent struggles and his nagging back problems, the right-hander still boasts a .631 career winning percentage. He has had five seasons with an ERA under 3.00, and his career ERA is 3.21. He has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.52.
The cumulative numbers and statistics are clearly in Oswalt's favor. The issue remains, however, whether or not he can help now. And there is reason to believe that Oswalt's spirit is still willing. The financial exposure for his next employer will not be, by today's standards, any problem.
Some club will take what will be described as a chance on Roy Oswalt. But signing him might well turn out to be much more like an opportunity for that club.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.