Catcher: Humberto Quintero appears to have secured a spot on the roster, but maybe not as the full-time starter. Ideally, the Astros would like to nab a veteran backstop who can catch anywhere from 60-130 games, depending on how Quintero performs. J.R. Towles will have a chance to compete for a spot, but it's more likely he'll start the season at Triple-A Round Rock.
Backup shortstop: Miguel Tejada's best years are behind him, and he's going to need days off next season. That brings forth the need for a utility infielder who is especially skilled at shortstop. That likely eliminates Mark Loretta and David Newhan from consideration, seeing they're strongest at second base.
Fifth outfielder: Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn and Darin Erstad are guaranteed spots, leaving the last outfield spot open. Reggie Abercrombie will compete for the job, but it's likely the Astros will seek a backup outfielder from outside of the organization to add to the pool of candidates.
3B Ty Wigginton:
Wigginton, heading into his final year of salary arbitration, is due a hefty raise from the $4.35 million he earned in '08. The Astros may be looking to unload salary, and to do so, they'll have to focus on moveable contracts. Wigginton has one, but considering there are 29 other teams facing economic hardships and Wigginton is just a year away from free agency, will anyone offer anything good in return?
Closer Jose Valverde: The Astros do not appear to be enthusiastic about trading Valverde, whose departure would leave the club without a closer. However, Valverde, a year away from free agency, is also due a bump up from the $4.7 million he made last season. He had another fantastic season, making it less likely he'll lose in arbitration as he did last year. The question here is the same as with Wigginton -- can the Astros find a viable trade partner? And, do they really want to?
SS Miguel Tejada: Can they trade Tejada? Some insiders feel there is a market for the shortstop but that, quite frankly, is hard to believe. He's due $13 million and suffered a decline in production last year, hitting only three home runs in the second half. Add to that his age and his potential personal issues, it's hard to believe a team would be willing to take on all of that baggage.
RHPs Bud Norris, Sergio Perez, Brad James:
No one is untouchable, but these are the only three pitching prospects who could make an impact at the big league level in the next two years. It's unlikely the club wants to use them as trade bait.
OF Brian Bogusevic, 3B Chris Johnson: Bogusevic will attend Major League Spring Training next year, his first test after switching from pitching to the outfield halfway through the season last year. He looks to be the real deal offensively so far, but time will tell regarding his ability to hit big league pitching. Johnson turned heads after hitting .324 following a promotion to Double-A midseason last year. He could be pushed to the Majors should the Astros deal Wigginton and might fit in as a backup. That appears to be a long shot for now, however.
Big contracts they might unload:
None. Lee is not willing to waive his no-trade clause, and the club has no intentions to ask Oswalt or Lance Berkman to do so either.
Arbitration-eligible: Valverde, RHP; Wigginton, 3B; Geoff Geary, RHP; Backe, RHP; Tim Byrdak, LHP; Rodriguez, LHP; and Quintero, C (likely Super Two).
Backe is the only non-tender candidate.
Summary: The Astros hoped to go no higher than $100 million, but the declining economy and sinking sponsorship and season-ticket sales may push the budget below that mark. The payroll was in the low 90s last year, and the club still expects an increase next year. How much remains to be seen.