LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) – If Andy Pettitte pitches next season, Houston manager Phil Garner wants it to be for the Astros, not the New York Yankees.

“I certainly am tainted by my biased feeling that he wants to be in Houston. He needs to be in Houston and we want him to be in Houston,” Garner said Tuesday at the baseball winter meetings. “And his family is dying for him to be in Houston. His kids are pining every day at school wondering, ‘Oh, daddy, please don’t go anywhere else. Stay in Houston.’ I could hear it all over the city.”

Pettitte and Roger Clemens are free agents and haven’t announced whether they plan to pitch in 2007. Garner spoke with Pettitte last week and got a better feeling that the left-hander wants to play next season.

“The first few times I talked to him, he wasn’t sure he was going to play,” Garner said. “He said he was going to make the decision later. The most recent conversation, he was more than leaning, he was really considering coming back and playing. I guess he hadn’t made a definitive decision – ‘Yes, I’m definitely coming back to play’ – but it was more like, ‘I’m getting very seriously interested in doing it.”‘

Pettitte’s agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks, have said they expect Pettitte to make a decision by the end of the month on whether to return for a 13th major league season. Pettitte is likely to command between $10 million and $15 million.

The 34-year-old left-hander, a two-time All-Star, has won 37 games in his three seasons back home in Houston after spending his first nine years pitching in pinstripes in the Bronx. The Yankees would love to have Pettitte in their rotation alongside Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson.

“He’s a Houston guy,” Garner said. “I think it’s been a good relationship in Houston. … I felt more optimistic he was going to come back and play. I guess I’m a little pessimistic on the side of signing him. I don’t get too optimistic.”

Garner, who was wearing a sling on his surgically repaired left shoulder, isn’t concerned about Pettitte taking his time to decide. Many players these days take such good care of themselves that they can get back in shape if they start training again even as late as January before spring training, Garner said. If Pettitte returns to the Astros, he would be slated as the No. 2 starter behind Roy Oswalt.

“Without him, I don’t know,” Garner said. “It would be up for grabs.”

Taylor Buchholz and Wandy Rodriguez, two of the team’s top young arms, would be in the mix.

Garner believes it takes many veteran players a little longer to get excited about the next season than it did early in their careers.

“I think he’ll find he many not be as enthusiastic Oct. 30 or Nov. 15 as he was three or four years ago,” Garner said. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t still want to play.”

As far as Clemens, he might consider pitching for close to half a season as he did in 2006.

“If Clemens happens, I hope it’s in addition to what we have to work with right now,” Garner said.

The Astros already made one of baseball’s biggest offseason acquisitions when they signed slugger Carlos Lee to a six-year, $100 million deal on Nov. 24. If Garner were writing his lineup now, Lee would be batting cleanup – saying, “Carlos Lee fits quite nicely where we need him to fit.”

Even considering his club is among the big spenders, Garner has been “stunned” by some of the outrageous money handed out already.

“It has absolutely shocked me,” Garner said. “Over the years, I have usually predicted where the market was going to go. The only one I got right this year was (Alfonso) Soriano.”

AP-ES-12-05-06 1756EST

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