While MLB.com is reporting that Roger Clemens’ signing with the Astros is imminent, the Houston Chronicle’s John Lopez is unimpressed.

If the Astros negotiate a middle-ground contract in the $17.5 million range with Clemens or, worse, lose an arbitration hearing and are forced to pay the $22 million, they can’t win

Six players ” Clemens (above), Andy Pettitte, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Jeff Bagwell ” would account for anywhere from $58 million to $69.3 million on next season’s payroll. Just five years ago, the entire team’s payroll was $49.5 million.

With those players in the fold, the Astros might be happy to have salvaged some semblance of competitiveness and would have a few big-name stars, foremost Clemens, who could fill seats.

But this club still would have nothing but question marks in the bullpen and the back end of the rotation, and it would find itself a day late and a couple hundred RBIs short of where it was just last season.

But neither can the Astros win if Clemens decides not to pitch in 2005.

Sure, McLane would be selling his championship mantra, as usual. But who’d buy it with Roy-O at the top of the rotation backed by Pettitte coming off elbow problems and Brandon Backe and his nice but limited 2004, plus Bagwell with a bum shoulder, Biggio patrolling center and big-league pups holding down key spots?

If Clemens returns, you’ve got some marquee appeal, 16 to 20 wins almost guaranteed and some spine-tingly Rocket moments in store. McLane would put on the happy face, and Purpura would sense redemption. But you also would have between $17 million and $22 million less to spend on filling holes and making a playoff run more than just a front-office dream.

If Clemens doesn’t return, however, a bad offseason turns much, much worse.

Thus, the 2005 Astros find themselves in something that seemed unfathomable just a few months ago: A no-win situation.