Oswalt nearing the end ... but where?

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Roy Oswalt is under contract with the Astros through next year.

And that might be it.

As in, It .

"Oh, I'll be done," Oswalt said matter-of-factly, as he relaxed after a rainy workout Saturday. "This year and next year will probably be it.

"I still love the game. I still love the competition. ... But when I get finished with my contract, if I'm not pitching at the level I'm pitching at now, then I'm not going to come back and hurt the team."

Oswalt is only 32. He seems far too young to be hinting at retirement. You may recall hearing similar talk from Andy Pettitte, a former Oswalt teammate. At last check, he was still employed.

There is a mutual option in Oswalt's contract for 2012, and Astros first baseman Lance Berkman said his "gut feeling" is that the right-hander will pitch that season.

But Oswalt has always been forthright, so we should take him seriously. A loyal Astros employee since 1997, he has won 137 games and made seven postseason starts. He's never earned the big ring, though. And he seems more motivated than ever to get one, now that the (theoretical) end is near.

So if the Astros fall from contention this year or next, they should consider trading Oswalt -- in order to serve the best interests of the team and its longtime ace.

Oswalt is eight victories away from becoming the franchise's all-time wins leader. He wants to finish his career with the Astros. (He said that Saturday.) He also wants to win a World Series. (He said that Saturday, too.) But if those desires become mutually exclusive, he would be justified in asking for a trade.

"I would love to see him an Astro for life, but I don't know that that's the case," said Lance Berkman, his friend and teammate. "As you get older, you don't want to play for a team that you feel like doesn't have a legitimate chance to win."

Berkman believes the Astros have that opportunity this year, citing the work of owner Drayton McLane and general manager Ed Wade. But Berkman also added: "If you get into a situation where you've got a lot of young guys, and it's more of a rebuilding team, I could see Roy saying, 'Hey, I want to go somewhere where I'm pitching for a championship.'"

If that scenario sounds familiar, it should. We saw it play out last year ... with another well-known pitcher named Roy.

And like Halladay, Oswalt has a no-trade clause.

Oswalt is also close with White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy, who left his original organization (San Diego) for a better chance at reaching the postseason. If Peavy has a good experience in Chicago, Oswalt may start thinking even more seriously about a move.

"I've told them (the Astros) before," Oswalt said. "If we're going to go to the rebuilding mode here, then, only playing a couple more years, I would have to play somewhere else.

"If we're going to throw in the towel and try to get better four years from now, three years from now, I'm kind of running out of time for that."

To be clear: The Astros' payroll will be around $93 million this year, and Wade insisted Saturday that the team is not in a rebuilding mode. He believes the team can compete in 2010 while also folding in young talent.

So, Oswalt isn't available now. And McLane has been allergic to rebuilding for years. (According to reports, then-Houston GM Tim Purpura nearly traded Oswalt to the Orioles at the '06 trade deadline.)

"People understand the magnitude of making a deal for a guy like Oswalt," Wade said. "He's not the kind of guy you get a lot of calls about (from other GMs). And it's not because they don't like him. It's because they know that there are so few pitchers like that out there.

"I would listen on any of our guys -- and GMs say that all the time -- but the reality is, when you come down to the type of package it would take, it's probably a 'no' response. And in our case, we expect him to be our ace."

There is a possible ownership change to consider, as McLane has contemplated selling the club in recent months. What if a prospective owner would find the Astros much more appealing without the $33 million left on Oswalt's contract?

Oswalt is a quintessential small-town guy but didn't rule out the possibility of playing in a larger market when asked Saturday. He isn't timid on the big stage, as we saw during his performance for the ages in Game 6 of the 2005 National League Championship Series against the Cardinals.

"Roy's the kind of guy that I think would actually do really well in a big market," Berkman said. "He thrives in big situations. They bring out the best in him."

Oswalt isn't trying to create controversy by talking about his future. It's much simpler than that: He has enough money that he doesn't need to work, and enough dignity that he's not going to stick around to pad his win total as a back-end starter.

Of course, any Oswalt trade speculation will hinge on his health and effectiveness, one year after finishing 8-6 with a career-worst 4.12 ERA. He could have won more games last year, if the lineup and bullpen had been more consistent. But he also didn't pitch after Sept. 15 because of back issues.

If Oswalt struggles this season -- with his performance or his back -- he may be on the verge of permanently swapping bullpens for the bulldozer that McLane gave him in 2006. In that event, the only market value of importance to Oswalt would be the going rate for his 10,000 acres spread across Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois and points elsewhere.

He has also kept busy by opening a restaurant near his Mississippi home. Its name, appropriately, is "Homeplate." The endeavor came about mostly because Oswalt had grown weary of driving 30 miles to find a suitable steakhouse. Oswalt checked in on the place frequently during the offseason ... only to be pressed into duty at the cash register from time to time.

But Oswalt isn't going to quit his day job yet, particularly when the news on his health has been so encouraging this spring. New manager Brad Mills said Oswalt asked to extend his first live batting practice session because he felt so good.

And after playing catch with Oswalt recently, reliever Tim Byrdak remarked: "I've seen the life on his fastball. He's definitely got the same stuff. He's throwing the ball like one of those 22-, 23-year-old kids trying to impress people at camp."

Oswalt talked about his excitement at the arrival of Mills and new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. Both have strong reputations in the game, and Oswalt said they have replaced last year's "gloomy" clubhouse with a more energetic vibe.

"To me, right now, I could still go out there and win 20 games this year," Oswalt said. "There's no doubt I could. But if I get to the end of the next year, and don't feel like I could do that, then I won't be out here."

So there you have it -- optimism and realism in the very same quote. And I don't expect Oswalt's mentality to change much over the remainder of his Astros career, however long or short that may be.