Astros ready to take another big step at Meetings

Astros ready to take another big step at Meetings

HOUSTON -- With a viable television network deal that will pay them nearly $60 million next year, a growing core of talent, and a new manager and outlook, the Astros will hit the Winter Meetings in San Diego on Monday looking to improve a club that took a large step forward last season.

The Astros, who in 2015 will be guided on the field by A.J. Hinch, have been on the hunt for relief pitching since the end of the regular season, a season in which they improved by 19 games but still converted barely half (26 of 57) of their save opportunities.

General manager Jeff Luhnow said that the club has been having active conversations with multiple free agents and multiple teams for weeks. In addition to relief pitching, the Astros are seeking to improve production at the corner infield spots, shore up the shortstop position and add a starting pitcher.

But the bullpen remains at the top of the list. The team hasn't been shy about its pursuit of some of the biggest closers on the market, a list that includes David Robertson, Andrew Miller (who signed with the Yankees on Friday) and Sergio Romo. Miller signed a four-year, $36 million deal, showing that top-shelf relief help won't come cheap, but the Astros expect their payroll to expand by about $20 million next year.

"The way to judge an offseason is to see what the team looks like on Opening Day, not necessarily coming home from the Winter Meetings," Luhnow said. "We're going to be very busy and active and are going to be exploring a lot of things like we have been over the past couple of weeks since the season ended, but we don't feel like we have to come home with something from the Winter Meetings. If it's the right fit, we will. There's going to be plenty of signing opportunities and trade opportunities after the Winter Meetings. Timing is less important than the actual result."

Following is a quick glance at the Astros' situation heading into the Winter Meetings.

Club needs

Relief pitching: The Astros have been zoned in on finding some help for the back of a bullpen that has struggled to hold leads in recent years. They began the offseason with high hopes and targeted some of the biggest names on the market, including Robertson, Miller and Romo. Robertson and Romo would require a large financial commitment, but the Astros have said that they will increase their payroll next year, and spending on the bullpen might take up a large portion of that increase.

Corner infield: The Astros had the lowest production in the Major Leagues at first base and third base combined last season, which is why finding a bat to bolster the corner infield remains a priority. First baseman Jon Singleton made his debut in 2014 and hit a few homers and drew some walks, but he didn't do much else with the bat and struggled for much of his time in Houston. Third baseman Matt Dominguez has some pop as well, but he regressed from a promising 2013 campaign and could be replaced.

Shortstop: As the Astros await the arrival of former No. 1 pick Carlos Correa -- which could come at some point late next season -- they have to address shortstop for Opening Day. The combination of Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Villar and Gregorio Petit wasn't what the club needed from the position offensively, so look for Houston to find a stopgap solution while Correa works his way up from Double-A.

Starting pitching: Like most teams, the Astros could use another starter. They won't be in play for any of the big names considering they do have some pitching depth throughout the organization, and Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh did a nice job at the top of the rotation last season. Keuchel and McHugh will have to prove they weren't one-hit wonders, and a low-cost veteran arm could help plug a hole until some more of the youngsters -- perhaps Mike Foltynewicz -- show they're ready for the big leagues.

Who they can trade if necessary

Center fielder Dexter Fowler : Fowler, acquired from the Rockies a year ago, could be primed to be traded for two reasons: First, he's entering the final year of arbitration and should make around $9 million next year, which would make him the Astros' second-highest paid player behind Feldman. Second, the Astros have better defensive options in center with George Springer and Jake Marisnick. That being said, Fowler gets on a base at a high clip when healthy and brings some value.

Catcher Carlos Corporan : The veteran switch-hitter became the odd man out when the Astros acquired backup Hank Conger in a trade with the Angels in early November to back up starter Jason Castro. But pitchers liked throwing to Corporan, who swung the bat well when his right hand wasn't banged up.

Designated hitter Chris Carter : Carter is arbitration-eligible for the first time, so his second-half outburst at the plate came at a good time. He struggled through the first half and wound up hitting .227 with 37 homers -- second in the American League -- and 88 RBIs, thanks to a torrid 53-game stretch from July 3 to Sept. 5 in which he hit .296 with 23 homers and 55 RBIs. A lot of teams are interested in that raw power, but he still has to prove he can do it for longer stretches and not be a liability with his strikeouts.

Castro: The longest-tenured member of the Astros, Castro has been part of trade rumors the past two seasons and is drawing interest again. He's getting expensive in his second year of arbitration-eligibility and didn't have a good year at the plate last season, but he's the clear-cut choice to start among the team's four catchers and provides solid leadership on and off the field. If he's traded, the Astros would still need to find a starter to replace him.

Top prospects

The Astros' top 10 prospects, per MLB.com, are Correa, right-hander Mark Appel, outfielder Domingo Santana, Foltynewicz, third baseman Colin Moran, right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., right-handers Michael Feliz and Vincent Velasquez, third baseman Rio Ruiz and left-hander Josh Hader.

These players represent the cream of the crop of the Astros' improving Minor League system, and it's unlikely that Luhnow would move any of them despite increasing depth. The Astros have, however, traded young starting pitching in the last year in dealing Jordan Lyles and Nick Tropeano, so anything's possible.

Rule 5 Draft

The 40-man roster is at 39, so it's iffy whether the Astros would make a selection. Luhnow said that there are players the Astros like who have been left exposed, but they don't have the No. 1 pick the way they had the three previous years. They haven't lost any significant prospects in the Rule 5 Draft in years, but a strengthening farm system makes it more difficult to protect everyone.

Big contracts they might unload

The Astros don't have many big contracts short of Feldman, who is scheduled to make $10 million in 2015 in the second year of a three-year, $30 million deal, and Fowler, who could get around $9 million in arbitration. Feldman did a nice job when healthy and probably isn't going anywhere, but Fowler could be moved because he's a year away from free agency and the Astros have options in center field.

Payroll summary

The payroll wound up at about $50 million last year and could increase by about $20 million, owner Jim Crane said earlier this offseason. The Astros finally have a viable TV deal that will pay them a tad less than $60 million in rights fees, so that will help. They have seven arbitration-eligible players who take up about $20 million of their payroll, but Luhnow says the team will still have enough flexibility to improve as he sees fit.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com 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.