HOUSTON -- The Astros slashed their payroll dramatically in July by trading away high-priced veteran players in exchange for more than a dozen Minor Leaguers, a process new ownership saw as necessary as the club continues to rebuild and puts added emphasis on the Draft and farm system.
General manager Jeff Luhnow will have the flexibility to add some free agents this winter, but the Astros aren't going to be bidding for any of the big names on the market at this stage of their rebuilding process. As more young players factor into the mix, the need for some veteran reinforcements remains, however.
Luhnow would like to use free agency to bolster his starting rotation and bullpen, as well as add some much-needed run production. That includes finding a designated hitter as the Astros prepare to move to the American League in 2013.
"We'd like to identify some pitching that would complement what we have," Luhnow said. "We know we've got [Bud] Norris, [Jordan] Lyles and [Lucas] Harrell sort of as probable locks in the rotation, and there'll be a lot of guys competing for those fourth and fifth spots, but we'd like to find a starting pitcher through free agency that could jump above or in the middle of those we have."
Starting pitching, of course, is expensive and the Astros might not be the most attractive landing spot after losing 213 games the previous two seasons, but Luhnow says Houston can offer potential free agents the playing time they might not get elsewhere.
"I think, first of all, we have a good story to sell in that we have opportunity," he said. "Often times, players will compromise or trade off some compensation in exchange for an opportunity. Part of our value proposition to a starting pitcher is they could go into our rotation and be guaranteed to be in the rotation, whereas that might not be the case with other clubs. The same is true with a run-producing bat."
Adding a couple of veteran run-producers for a team that lacked power and finds itself needing to fill an extra offensive spot in the lineup will be crucial. The Astros ranked last in the NL last season in pretty much every run-producing category. Outfielder Justin Maxwell led the club with 18 homers and outfielder J.D. Martinez led the team with 55 RBIs, which was the fewest in franchise history to lead the club in a full season.
"It's more about offensive output than the precise position," Luhnow said. "If you look around our infield and outfield, we could add someone in the outfield, but we have Maxwell, [J.D.] Martinez, [Fernando] Martinez and other guys like [Brandon] Barnes. We've got plenty of players in our system that are going to be competing for spots, but we could throw a run-producer in the mix."
Luhnow said the club could add a corner infielder from the free-agent market, ideally one that would be able to slide over to designated hitter as well. Another need is backup catcher, where veteran Chris Snyder is unlikely to return with his hefty $4 million mutual option.
As far as how much money the Astros will have to spend in free agency, Luhnow couldn't say.
"That's going to be a moving target through the offseason and into next year," he said. "It's pretty much driven by forecast on ticket sales and revenues and all of that. We'll have some resources available and will look at every opportunity as we analyze every investment. We have to decide how much return we get on some investments, how much it cost, and does it make sense for the Astros and where we are and players we have coming in the pipeline."
Players can start signing with other clubs after 11 p.m. CT on Friday.
There is a mutual option for 2013 for $4 million for backup catcher Chris Snyder, but it doesn't appear the Astros are going to bring him back. They have no other significant players facing free agency, but expect a few players not to be tendered contracts as the Astros continue to trim some excess off the roster they inherited from previous management.
Areas of need
Designated hitter: The Astros will be scouring the free-agent market looking for their first full-time designated hitter in advance of their move to the American League West in 2013. They have some in-house candidates -- Brett Wallace or Jonathan Singleton, for example -- but expect a veteran to fill this role.
Corner infield: Matt Dominguez (third base), Wallace (first base) and Brandon Laird will be in the mix at the corners, but the Astros would like to add another player to the fray, possibly someone who could slide over and work as the designated hitter.
Outfield: The outfield underwent a substantial change last season when Fernando Martinez, Barnes and Maxwell were starting at the end of the season after J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic started on Opening Day. J.D. Martinez, coming off hand surgery, will be back in the picture, but the Astros would like to add a run producer to push for playing time.
Backup catcher: Jason Castro, finally healthy, emerged last year offensively as the starter, with Chris Snyder and Carlos Corporan splitting backup duties. It's unlikely Snyder returns, so expect the Astros to add another catcher to compete for the reserve spot.
Starting pitching: With Norris, Lyles and Harrell locks for the 1-2-3 spots in the starting rotation, the Astros would like to add an experienced arm that would follow them, or even perhaps compete to pitch at the top of the rotation next year.
Relief pitching: The bullpen was extremely young last season following the midseason trades of Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon. Veteran Wilton Lopez is a fixture at the back end and the Astros like what they have in lefties Wesley Wright and Sergio Escalona (coming off Tommy John surgery), but there's a real need for a veteran arm who could join Lopez in the late innings.
The Astros slashed their payroll to bottom-barrel levels following their midseason trades of high-priced players like Myers, Carlos Lee and Wandy Rodriguez, though they're paying significant portions of those contracts. When the dust settled, the only player making more than $750,000 was shortstop Jed Lowrie ($1.15 million), leaving the payroll south of the $20 million range. Lowrie will get a nice raise in arbitration, and pitchers Norris and Lopez are first-time eligible, but there should be enough flexibility to make additions.