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Astros unlikely to be active in free-agent market

Astros unlikely to be active in free-agent market

HOUSTON -- Even with Houston natives Carl Crawford and Adam Dunn among the big catches in this year's free-agent market -- in which teams are free to negotiate with all free agents as of Sunday -- the hometown Astros aren't likely to be rolling out the red carpet to try to lure them to Minute Maid Park.

The Astros will have some payroll flexibility to address some, if not all, of their needs this winter, but they're not in position to be a player in the high-rent free-agent market. Houston, which has made a recent commitment to get younger through trades and the Draft, will stick with that approach in 2011.

Last winter proved to be a hit-or-miss offseason for the Astros, who struck gold when they signed starting pitcher Brett Myers to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $5.1 million and struck out when they signed third baseman Pedro Feliz to a one-year, $4.5 million contract.

There is no free-agency filing period this year, because all players not signed by their team past 2010 automatically become free agents five days after the final game of the World Series.

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Play Free Agent Frenzy

The Astros began last season with a $93 million payroll, but that had been cut dramatically by September, following the trades of Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Feliz. Next year's payroll likely won't be as high as 2010's Opening Day figure, but it should be higher than it was at the end of the season, despite the $43 million Houston is contractually committed to lay out in 2011 and the team's 10 arbitration-eligible players.

"I think we'll have the ability to address some of our needs, if not all of them," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "We're going to have to be creative, in some instances."

Wade wouldn't get into specifics about which positions the Astros plan to address in the offseason, but it's safe to say they are looking to upgrade an offense that ranked 14th in the National League in batting average (.247) and last in home runs (108). Expect the Astros this winter to try to add some offense in the middle infield, whether at shortstop, second base or both.

The Astros are counting on outfielders Hunter Pence, who's hit 25 homers three years in a row, and Carlos Lee, who slumped to 24 homers last year, to pick up where they left off in the second half. Wade expects first baseman Brett Wallace, a power-hitter in the Minor Leagues, and catcher Jason Castro to acquire more punch.

"We feel that we have to be a better offensive club than we were last year," Wade said. "We've got to figure out ways to create an opportunity to score more runs. If there are ways for us to improve offensively, we'll do that."

The Astros have the makings of a solid pitching rotation, but, like most teams, will be on the lookout for a starter via free agency or trade.

Contract issues

Free agents: IF Geoff Blum, RHP Brian Moehler.

Eligible for arbitration: LHP Tim Byrdak, LHP Gustavo Chacin, LHP Wandy Rodriguez, C Humberto Quintero, 2B Jeff Keppinger, CF Michael Bourn, RF Hunter Pence, RHP Nelson Figueroa, RHP Matt Lindstrom and RHP Felipe Paulino.

Non-tender possibilities: LHP Gustavo Chacin, LHP Tim Byrdak.

Areas of Need

Shortstop: One of the Astros' main goals this season is to add offense to a weak lineup, and shortstop could be where they choose to do that. Tommy Manzella is a polished defensive player who made strides on offense his rookie season and wound up splitting time with Angel Sanchez, a singles hitter who is below-average on defense. If Houston can get a bat to generate more offense at shortstop, they'll do it.

Starting pitcher: The Astros appear content to open Spring Training with Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris in the rotation, leaving one spot open. There are internal candidates, such as Felipe Paulino, Nelson Figueroa and prospect Jordan Lyles, but Houston will be in the market to add another starter.

Bench: After declining to pick up the option for veteran infielder Geoff Blum, the Astros will be looking for a utility infielder who could backup at several positions. They'll likely bring back Matt Downs to try to fill that role, but they would still need to acquire another such player, whether via trade or free agency. Houston will also need a fifth outfielder, preferably a left-handed hitter.

2011 payroll

The Astros began last season with a $93 million payroll, but reduced it by season's end after trading Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Pedro Feliz. They have $43 million in committed contracts for next year, including $10 million-plus committed to money they took back in the Oswalt trade and the buyout of Geoff Blum. Additionally, the Astros have 10 players eligible for arbitration, including Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez. Those three made a combined $10.9 million last season after getting substantial raises in arbitration last year and figure to be in line for sizable pay hikes once again.

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

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