"We had a list of players we targeted at the beginning of the offseason and we're still pursuing the vast majority of those and just waiting for the players and/or us to figure out if there's common ground," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said Wednesday. "I've had several conversations with other teams about potential deals. There's a lot of activity, but nothing's happened yet, and I don't know if anything is going to happen before the Winter Meetings. But at least during the Winter Meetings, we'll have had a lot of the preliminary conversations and we'll be able to accelerate things there."
The Astros made a trade during last year's Winter Meetings, sending reliever Wilton Lopez to the Rockies in an under-the-radar deal. They really didn't get active in free agency until later on, adding Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel to low-risk deals that ultimately didn't pan out. They also signed reliever Jose Veras in late December and wound up trading him in July for a prospect.
Houston figures to make a more significant impact in free agency this year based on need and money available. Owner Jim Crane said in October the team could expand its payroll to as much as $60 million, giving the Astros more than $30 million to add in payroll.
Of course, the Astros are coming off three consecutive seasons of at least 106 losses, including the 2013 season's 111-loss campaign. Some players may be hesitant to sign in Houston because it's still a few years away from contending, but that's not deterring Luhnow.
"There's so many variables that go into where a player wants to play," he said. "Obviously, the contract is a big component of it. There's the ballpark, there's the division, the team, the geography, etc. I think in some cases we have the advantage because we're in a warm-weather state and we play under a roof.
"Also, there's so many players from Texas that want to play near their hometown. The disadvantages are we haven't won a lot in the last three years and some players are looking to latch onto a team that's closer than we are. I think there's enough players on our target list that we'll get some of the guys we want."
Crane says he's had a couple of proposals come across his desk already.
"We look to make some moves to fill in the team," Crane said. "Last year was a year we were trying to establish a lot of our younger players and see who we felt were Major League players. We felt we did that with a number of guys. We need to improve the bullpen, we could use some power and some outfield help. I think the guys are focused on that. A lot of that will happen. Some of the deals could happen sooner than later, before some of the big guys get signed."
Crane typically leaves the baseball decisions up to Luhnow and his staff, but he said he would be more than willing to make a trip to visit a free agent if he thought it would get the job done. Right now, the Astros aren't quite ready to close any deals.
"Nothing substitutes for personal contact," Crane said. "We think when it's appropriate, if they think they need me, I'll gladly step in. If [Luhnow requests it], I'll show up. I've shown up at agents' offices before when he requested it. If he thinks I can help close, or [manager] Bo [Porter] can help close, or somebody can help, we think it can be a benefit to the team to show we are interested from the top. I'll be glad to do that."