With the World Series winding down within the next week, the Hot Stove League will take center stage as we hit November. And this year, it's going to come quickly, with the free-agent signing period starting only five days after the end of the Fall Classic.
The only free agents the Astros have are pitcher Brian Moehler and infielder Geoff Blum, whose option has already been declined. Houston's No. 1 task this winter will be improving its offense, but the club is not going to be throwing money at guys like Carl Crawford.
Still, the Astros should have enough financial flexibility to address some of their needs. Their offense was woeful last year, but they have the makings of having a solid pitching staff, and that can carry a club a long way.
As we get ready for the free-agency frenzy, you have questions about the club's future and its winter game plan. And I've done my best to provide the answers with the latest installment of the Inbox.
What do you think are the chances that Carlos Lee will be traded? Since his full no-trade clause expired at the end of 2010 and is now a partial no-trade clause, what does that mean for the Astros when it comes to a potential trade? How much of his salary would the Astros have to absorb in order for a trade to be more appealing to the other team? Do you think Lee playing first base was a showcase to make him more appealing to other teams?
-- Beverly B., Elroy, Texas
Lee has two years remaining on his six-year, $100-million deal he signed prior to the 2007 season, and indeed now has a limited no-trade clause. That means Lee has to give the Astros a list of 14 clubs he would not accept a trade to at some point this winter. He's due about $38 million over the next two years, and when you consider his defensive shortcomings and his declining offensive numbers, he's nearly untradeable.
Still, Lee could be attractive to a team needing a designated hitter. He's a proven run producer, who did have a pretty solid second half. He wound up hitting 24 home runs and had 89 RBIs. There's no doubt if the Astros were able to find a trade partner, they would have to eat a substantial portion of the contract. Houston has a handful of outfield prospects coming up, and the club would be well-served to create a spot for one of them, which will be hard to do with Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence entrenched as starters.
Lee did play quite a bit of first base late in the season, which could have been to show teams he could play that position. But I think the Astros were looking out for themselves, knowing their defense would be drastically improved if they had someone in left field that could cover some ground. If Lee's back, I expect to see him at first even more next year, especially if Brett Wallace continues to struggle.
Do you see the Astros adding a starting pitcher in much the same way they did last offseason with [Brett] Myers? Possibly a [Brandon] Webb or [Javier] Vazquez? Thanks.
-- Alex S., Houston
The Astros struck gold last year whey they signed Myers to a one-year, $5.1 million guaranteed contract, and wound up finding the ace of their staff in the wake of the Roy Oswalt trade with the Phillies. Myers was terrific, and parlayed his solid season into a three-year contract extension with the Astros.
Houston feels good about the top four pitchers in its rotation for 2011 -- Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris -- and will indeed be on the lookout for a fifth starter on the cheap. Webb, a former Cy Young Award winner, could be out of their price range, and spending big money on free-agent starting pitching is always a very risky proposition.
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I believe the Astros will try to find a bargain like they did last year with Myers by signing a veteran and hoping for the best. They also have several internal candidates who will be competing to be the fifth starter, including Felipe Paulino, Nelson Figueroa and prospect Jordan Lyles.
What is up with [Jason] Castro/catcher slot? Is the job his in Spring Training? What about [Humberto Quintero]? Are they bringing a veteran and sending the other down?
-- J.R. M., Nashville, Tenn.
As of now, the Astros remain committed to Castro, their No. 1 Draft pick in 2008. He made his Major League debut last season following a quick rise through the system, and batted .205 with two homers and eight RBIs. He still has fewer than 200 Major League at-bats, so there's no reason to believe he's not going to improve.
Expect the Astros to try to find a catcher to begin the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City to serve as protection in case there becomes a need at the big league level. Quintero has proven to be a decent backup catcher over the past few years and has earned the trust of staff ace Myers.
With the Astros' payroll significantly lower as of now, have you heard anything about the free agents the Astros are considering going after? I know that Crawford is a big long shot, but is there anyone else of note available at either left field or shortstop?
-- Kyle P., Manvel, Texas
Crawford, the Rays' dynamic outfielder and Houston native who played with Bourn as a child, is expected to be one of the most in-demand free agents in the offseason in terms of dollars and length of contract, which will put him well beyond what Houston is going to be able to do.
The Astros opened last season with a $93 million payroll, and ended it with a much lower number following the trades of Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Pedro Feliz. The Astros' payroll for Opening Day will probably be somewhere in between, meaning the club should have enough flexibility to address most, if not all, of its needs.
The Astros are focusing on getting younger and are trying to build through the Draft and the young players they acquired in last season's aforementioned trades. If they add any offense this offseason, it's going to be at shortstop or second base.
How do you think Tommy Manzella will fit in the Astros' future?
-- Michael M., Modesto, Calif.
Last season, the Astros went into Spring Training content with Manzella as their starting shortstop. He scuffled on offense and wound up missing more than six weeks with a broken finger, which opened the door for Angel Sanchez to get substantial playing time.
Entering the 2011 season, the position is up in the air. Manzella hit .225 last year in only 258 at-bats and showed signs of improvement, so there's reasons to believe he could develop into a good enough offensive player to join his tremendous defensive skills. Sanchez has proven to be a better hitter, but he has no power, doesn't run well and isn't in Manzella's league defensively.
The Astros are going to be good listeners when it comes to adding more offensive punch in the middle of the infield this winter, whether second base, shortstop or both.
What will Astros do with J.R. Towles? Does the club still believe he has the future with Astros?
-- Yosuke H., Yokohama, Japan
Last season proved to be pretty much a lost year for Towles, who beat out Castro for the Opening Day catching nod, but was sent to Double-A Corpus Christi on May 5 after he struggled to establish himself. To make matters worse, he played in only five games at Corpus Christi before injuring his thumb and eventually having season-ending surgery.
He'll be back at Spring Training this year competing for a job at the big league level, but Castro is considered the club's catcher of the future. The Astros also drafted a pair of college catchers in Chris Wallace and Ben Heath last year, and both had solid debuts.
What are the odds that we will actually spend some cash this winter? I think there are great cheap options: Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, Omar Infante at 2B/3B/SS, John Buck or Miguel Olivo at catcher, Javy Vazquez for a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, and Chad Qualls/Dan Wheeler for the seventh and eighth inning, respectively. None of these guys are over $6 million, and most are under $5 million. Any chance we sign any of them? If not, who might we actually sign?
-- Matthew J., Houston
While no specific names have yet to emerge -- free agency doesn't begin this year until five days after the World Series -- I think you're on the right track with the kinds of players the Astros will be targeting, and it's not the big-money guys. Instead, they will be looking at some guys who have had good track records in the past and could be had on the relative cheap, such as they did last offseason by signing Myers. That turned out great for Houston.
You mentioned former Astros relievers Wheeler and Qualls, but I don't expect the Astros to throw a lot of money at the back end of the bullpen. They addressed that last year when they signed Brandon Lyon to a three-year deal and traded for Matt Lindstrom. Lindstrom started strong and had a rough second half as he battled through back problems, but he'll likely return. Lyon had a terrific season and wound up saving 20 games after taking over for Lindstrom as closer. The Lyon signing was panned by everyone, but so far it's a good one.
What's more, the Astros like how Wilton Lopez performed in the bullpen last season and have him pegged for a late-inning role. Houston's biggest bullpen concern this offseason will be adding a left-hander, but there's a limited market this year.
So, what's the chance that Berkman will return to the Astros?
-- Kylene M., Sewanee, Tenn.
Slim to none. Berkman, who is a free agent after the Yankees declined his huge option for 2011, would certainly love to return to Houston, but it appears the Astros have moved on. They are committed to looking to the future with Brett Wallace at first base, and their outfield is too crowded and there are too many prospects coming up in the next couple of years to consider Puma in the outfield.
Sentiment could be on the side of bringing back Berkman to Minute Maid Park, and he'd certainly sign here for less money than he would elsewhere, but when it comes to making a baseball decision, Berkman's return doesn't make sense for the Astros. Berkman still wants to play, however.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.