Pitching the priority for Astros in Vegas

Pitching the priority for Astros in Vegas

HOUSTON -- The odds of Randy Wolf re-signing with the Astros have dropped significantly since the Hot Stove season began two months ago, but the club's needs remain the same.

As general manager Ed Wade prepares to head to the Bellagio in Las Vegas for the Winter Meetings next Sunday, he has a wish list that includes a starting pitcher as well as a catcher to share the workload with Humberto Quintero. Those are the two main priorities, while two more -- acquiring a utility infielder who can spell Miguel Tejada at shortstop from time to time and deciding on a fifth outfielder -- are on the agenda as well.

The Astros are still interested in Wolf, but unless they free up payroll in other areas, it's unlikely they'll be able to afford the free-agent left-hander. Wade hasn't spoken with Wolf's agents since last week, and it's highly unlikely anything will be resolved before the Winter Meetings.

Wolf was the Astros' main target heading into the offseason, and the team was optimistic that a deal would eventually be completed. Now, Wolf appears to be a long shot, unless the Astros are successful in shedding other burdensome salaries, such as those of Ty Wigginton and Jose Valverde, both of whom are due hefty raises in arbitration this year.

"We have to free up payroll," Wade said. "It doesn't make sense to make a long-term commitment to a player without knowing if we can shed payroll elsewhere. When you talk about a deal [for Wolf] of that magnitude, it's not sensible to go through the process without knowing the overall payroll status."

Wolf, a 32-year-old veteran of 10 Major League seasons, solidified the Astros' rotation when he was traded to Houston in late July. He recorded a 6-2 record with a 3.57 ERA over 12 starts and was a big contributor to the Astros' second-half playoff push, which didn't end until they were eliminated from Wild Card contention after the 159th game of the season.

If the Astros indeed cannot afford Wolf, they have a backup plan that carries some risk, but can't hurt them too much from a financial standpoint. They inked Mike Hampton to a deal worth approximately $2 million plus incentives -- pending a physical -- giving them a veteran lefty with playoff experience while protecting themselves from the injury-laden history that plagued Hampton for the last several seasons.

Hampton isn't the only pitcher with injury history who the Astros have explored. Ben Sheets is being considered, although he set off alarm bells when he hurt his elbow last season and was unable to help the Brewers during the postseason.

Freddy Garcia may be an option as well, but, like Hampton and Sheets, he's a risky gamble. He recently was forced to leave a Winter League game in Venezuela because of shoulder discomfort, a disturbing development considering he missed most of '07 and almost all of '08 after undergoing surgery on his right labrum and rotator cuff.

Now that the deadline to offer free agents arbitration has passed, the picture becomes slightly clearer as far as who may be available. The Astros will not give up draft picks in order to sign a Type A free agent, so don't look for them to pursue any players of that magnitude who were offered arbitration by their original teams.

Another deadline to keep an eye on is Dec. 12, the day teams must tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. Many players will be looking for jobs after that date passes, which will help to better establish the market and speed up the signing process.

"Agents will get serious about getting guys signed in the short-term," Wade said. "A lot of guys will start flying off the board."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.