Are the Astros planning to sign Lance Berkman to an extension before he gets an opportunity to test the free-agent market? Are they planning on trying to keep him in Houston long term?
-- Michelle P., College Station, Texas

Berkman is signed through 2010, and the club holds an option for '11, so we have a little while before the speculation should begin in earnest. If Berkman is still productive at the end of '10, I don't see any reason why the Astros wouldn't pick up the option. He said he wants to play three or four more years after this season -- assuming he's still healthy and productive. I cannot imagine him playing anywhere else, but we'll see.

I can see Puma signing a one- or two-year extension, but I also would not at all be surprised if he called it a career at the end of this contract. He's not going to hang on just for the sake of hanging on. He is one player who will be just fine in retirement. Not all players can handle being out of the spotlight. I actually think Puma will enjoy it, when it's time.

I know Carlos Lee has a no-trade clause, but am I mistaken or doesn't he lose that clause at some point in his contract? If so, when does he lose it?
-- Joshua C., Peoria, Ill.

Lee, who is signed through 2012, has a full no-trade clause through '10. Normally, he would then have the right to veto any trade after '11, when he becomes a 10-5 player (10 years in the Majors, five years in a row with the same team). Lee, however, waived his two years of 10-5 rights when he signed his contract. He can be traded to a limited number of teams in '11 and '12.

Despite the Astros' ability to trade Lee then, I wouldn't bet on that. He will earn $18.5 million in each of those seasons, and given his age -- he'll turn 35 in 2011 -- and his limited abilities in the outfield, he'll be hard to deal.

Who is the third string, or emergency, catcher?
-- Jim E., Highland Haven, Texas

Geoff Blum has a full complement of catching equipment that goes with him on the road. He is the first emergency option. Jason Smith apparently has told manager Cecil Cooper that he can catch as well if the club is in a pinch. Neither player wants to do it, and for the team's sake, let's hope they're never needed. But they are able.

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Question:

Why do we continue to hand Geoff Geary the ball? He's struggling this year, but when the game seems to be on the line, we continue to put him in. Is there any way to designate him for assignment successfully?
-- Evan F., Golden Valley, N.D.

You don't designate someone who has been pretty good for the bulk of his career and has had a rough couple of weeks. If you released every player who struggled, you wouldn't have enough players to fill a roster.

Geary had two fairly involved surgical procedures seven months ago, and he recently admitted he may have been a little tentative with the groin area that was repaired. When he's on, he's one of the better pitchers in the Astros' bullpen. Let's give him some time to work out of whatever funk he's in. I'm seeing encouraging signs already.

Why has Cooper been taking Lee out at the end of games? I find this an odd move, as Lee seems to be the only one who is has consistently provided offense. Also, is there much concern about our offensive production? I know it's early in the year, but the pitching is keeping us in most games.
-- Nicholas C., La.

When the Astros are ahead by a slim margin, Cooper wisely inserts Darin Erstad into left field, given that Erstad is the better defensive player and you want your best defense on the field when closing out a not-so-comfortable win. But Lee also had an achilles-tendon issue not long ago that forced him out of one game earlier than he normally would come out. Regarding the offense, clearly, Berkman's average isn't helping. Once he snaps out of this slump, we'll see more wins.

Why is Ivan Rodriguez called "Pudge"?
-- Marsha W., Houston

He was given that nickname by an old coach -- one of his first. In 1988, his first professional season, his bench coach, Chino Cadahia [now the bench coach of the Atlanta Braves], noted the small, short, stocky catcher and called him Pudge. It stuck.

In Spring Training there were outcries for Sean Berry's dismissal. Now that the season has started and the offense continues to be struggling, how much of a rope will be given to Berry?
-- Lee G.

Fortunately, the front office doesn't listen to outcries from the public every time a team goes 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Let's save those conversations for talk radio. If we're going to blame Berry for Berkman's problems, then shouldn't we credit him for Hunter Pence's successes? How about what Michael Bourn has done? Berry has been with Pence since he was drafted in 2004 and Berry was the roving hitting instructor. Pence says Berry is the best hitting coach he's ever had. Berry was also the one in the cage every day while Bourn practiced bunting 150 times a day in Spring Training.

I just find the idea that Berry could possibly be causing Berkman, a five-time All-Star now in his 10th big league season, to forget how to hit absurd.