Astros hope to close in on closer at Winter Meetings

Astros hope to close in on closer at Winter Meetings

HOUSTON -- The Astros' pursuit of a closer will remain their top focus when general manager Jeff Luhnow and the much of the front office hit San Diego next week for baseball's annual Winter Meetings, beginning Monday.

Houston, which has blown a Major League-high 54 games the past two seasons, has been in pursuit of some of the game's top free-agent relievers, including lefty Andrew Miller and right-hander David Robertson, who saved 39 games for the Yankees last season after taking over for future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. Sergio Romo of the Giants is another option.

Along with bolstering the bullpen, the Astros are trying to upgrade their offense, which means they're shopping for a corner infielder. They didn't get good production from third baseman Matt Dominguez or first baseman Jon Singleton last season, and while they're not giving up on either player, they have to add more punch at the corners.

The Astros also need to sort through their catching situation. After acquiring Hank Conger in a trade a month ago, they have four catchers on the 40-man roster and could be looking to move starter Jason Castro or backup Carlos Corporan. Max Stassi also is in the mix.

"Generally speaking, we want to improve the bullpen and potentially add another starter, and improve our offensive lineup, which probably means in the infield somewhere," Luhnow said last month.

The Astros signed relievers Jerome Williams, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain a year ago, but injuries derailed Albers and Crain, and Williams was let go midseason. They also signed Chad Qualls, who did a solid job at closer when he wasn't facing Oakland.

Albers and Qualls were signed in the day prior to last year's Winter Meetings, which didn't see the Astros make any significant moves.

Robertson's free-agent market

Of course, adding a premier reliever will be expensive. Robertson reportedly is seeking a four-year deal, which could be worth at least $50 million. That would make him the highest-paid player on the Astros' roster. Would that be a wise move for a team that's still young and on the rise?

Signing Robertson would mean the Astros would have to forfeit a Draft pick because he turned down the Yankees' qualifying offer. Houston has the No. 2 and No. 5 overall picks in the 2015 First-Year Player Draft, but they're protected, so the pick the Astros would lose for signing a player who turned down a qualifying offer is their third pick (the competitive-round pick they received from the Marlins in last season's Jarred Cosart trade).

"It's nothing we're going to shy away from this year," Luhnow said last month. "The fit would have to be right in all the other areas, but the loss of the compensation pick is not something that will hold us back from improving the team in the short term."

The Astros, coming off a season in which they improved by 19 wins, also could be in the market to trade center fielder Dexter Fowler, who's eligible for arbitration for the final time and could get $9 million next season. The Astros have outfield options with George Springer, Jake Marisnick and Robbie Grossman.

The Astros' payroll, which finished around $50 million last season, is expected to rise by about $20 million, owner Jim Crane has said. MLB Trade Rumors estimates the team's 2015 payroll commitments will be $48.4 million, including re-signing their arbitration-eligible players: Fowler (estimated $9 million), left-hander Tony Sipp (etimated $1.5 million), Conger (estimated $1.1 million), designated hitter Chris Carter (estimated $2.5 million) and shortstop Marwin Gonzalez (estimated $1 million).

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.