Things figure to be much quieter this time for the Astros, who have already addressed one of their needs by trading for infielder Clint Barmes and are facing payroll limitations this winter. Still, president of baseball operations Tal Smith and general manager Ed Wade and the rest of the front office will head to next week's Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., with hopes of improving the team.
"I don't see us being really active at the Winter Meetings unless we're engaged in specific trade discussions at that point, but I envision it being quiet for us," Wade said. "As we've indicated, we've got some payroll limitations that we're working through, and that being the case, it will be a challenge being out there and be overly aggressive in the free-agent market.
"That doesn't mean we're not going to work to get things done, but I look at it in a realistic context. I don't envision us being as active as we were last year."
Wade pulled off a trade with the Rockies earlier this month to land Barmes, who will come to Spring Training as the favorite to start at shortstop, though he could also see time at second base. The Astros would still like to beef up their offense even more before the start of next season.
"We think Clint's got a chance to be a very productive player for us," Wade said. "He's clearly a very solid defensive player, and if you look at what he did in 2009 on offense, he hit the ball in the gaps and out of the ballpark and should be able to produce some runs for us."
The Astros haven't ruled out exploring more help in the middle field -- perhaps a second baseman who more pop and better range than Jeff Keppinger -- and are still in need of a left-handed-hitting outfielder, a lower-tier starter pitcher and a left-handed reliever.
Neither Wade nor owner Drayton McLane, who last week announced he was trying to sell the club, have stated publicly what the payroll will be for 2011, except to say it will be less than last season's Opening Day figure of $93 million. The payroll had already been slashed significantly by the end of last season following the trades of Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Feliz.
"We'll continue doing what we can to improve our club and take the next step if we can," Wade said. "Every club has a budget, and we know what our budget is and we'll work within the confines of that. I clearly understand why we have a budget. You've got to work within your means and it's got to be reflective of what your revenues are. Talking to Drayton and [president of business operations] Pam Gardner and Tal, it's clear that what we have to spend fits the revenue we've got. We still have to make smart decisions."
Houston has $43 million committed to contracts in 2011 and has eight remaining arbitration-eligible players, including Barmes, who made $3.25 million last season. Hunter Pence, who was named the team's Most Valuable Player, and two-time Gold Glove outfielder Michael Bourn, an All-Star in '10, are due big raises in arbitration and will take a chunk from the payroll.
Carlos Lee, the starter in left field the previous four seasons, could wind up at first base at the beginning of next year, which is why the Astros are in the market for a left-handed-hitting outfielder who could start in left or platoon. They haven't ruled out filling the spot internally and could give former first-round pick Brian Bogusevic and Minor Leaguer Jack Shuck a look.
The Astros had one of the best free-agent signings of last offseason when they inked pitcher Brett Myers to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $5.1 million. He had a career season and wound up getting a contract extension. Myers was trying to re-establish himself after missing much of the previous year with an injury, and that's a similar type of pitcher the Astros will pursue this winter.
As is the case with the outfield spot, Houston may choose to find a starting pitcher internally. Wade said top prospect Jordan Lyles will likely be invited to spring camp to compete for a spot, and the team has kicked around the idea of putting young relievers Fernando Abad or Henry Villar in the rotation.
The club is also looking for a left-handed reliever after cutting ties last week with veteran Tim Byrdak, who was taken off the 40-man roster.
"We don't open Spring Training until the 16th of February, so we have a lot of times to do things," Wade said. "Before we roll back in here to play the Red Sox in those two exhibition games [in March], I suspect we'll do a few more things."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.