The Astros have largely stayed out of the headlines this offseason, short of a November trade to acquire Clint Barmes from the Rockies and owner Drayton McLane announcing the team is up for sale.
The club is dealing with some budget limitations this offseason and still has time to address some of its biggest needs in the next two months. There are reasons for optimism if you're an Astros fan, considering the parity in the National League Central and the team's strong finish last season.
At this point, the Astros have gotten better, based on the Barmes trade alone. They gave up Felipe Paulino, who showed some promise, but is very much replaceable. If general manager Ed Wade can find a way to add even more offense between now and February, the team will have suddenly gotten a lot more interesting.
Still, many questions remain. Who's going to play first base next year? What other moves could be made? What kind of payroll limitations is the team facing?
So put your holiday plans aside for a few moments and allow yourself to think of a warmer time, when baseballs are flying through the Florida sun and into mitts during Spring Training. It's time for another Inbox, which takes a look ahead at 2011.
There are a lot of question marks with the 2011 team. Which is the biggest need, and what are the plans on addressing them?
-- Mike S., Midland, Texas
The top motive for the Astros this offseason was to add some run production to an offense that ranked among the worst in the NL last season. Houston did just that in November when it traded for Barmes to be the starting shortstop, and Wade is still on the prowl for some more help in the middle infield.
The Astros didn't get much run production out of shortstops Tommy Manzella or Angel Sanchez this year, and Barmes has the potential to hit 20 home runs. He's a pull hitter and should feast on left field at Minute Maid Park.
Of course, having Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee get off to strong starts and seeing youngsters Brett Wallace and Jason Castro continue to make progress would help that cause, too. The Astros are going to bring in a bevy of pitchers to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation behind Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris -- a list that includes newcomer Ryan Rowland-Smith and Rule 5 draftees Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton.
The bullpen is in pretty good shape, but the Astros would still like to bring in a left-handed arm via free agency or a trade to help fill a need there.
The Astros still need an outfielder who can hit righties and another middle infielder with pop. Have they given serious consideration to Bill Hall? He can play all of the outfield, plus second, third and short. He hit 18 homers last season in fewer than 400 at-bats and could back up third, start at second, and if Lee plays first, he could platoon in left. He's very versatile.
-- Austin M., Deer Park, Texas
The Astros have touched base with the agent for Hall, who definitely would bring versatility and has some pop, as you wrote. But before the club brings in another player on a multimillion contract, they might need to free up some money elsewhere by making a trade, and that complicates the process of signing an impact player like Hall at this point.
Since the Astros are in no position to lock up anyone long term, should we be entertaining offers for Wandy Rodriguez and even Michael Bourn? Everyone in the NL Central has gotten better, even the Pirates.
-- Sean F., Austin, Texas
Bourn and Rodriguez are still under club control and are relative bargains based on their production. The Astros have kicked around the idea of signing Rodriguez, who is indeed eligible for free agency after next season to a multiyear deal, but he'll begin next season at 32 years old and had a terrible first half. That could be risky at this point.
Bourn has two more seasons of arbitration before he can become a free agent, and I'm sure when that time draws closer, the Astros will weigh the pros and cons of signing him to a long-term contract. At this point, that doesn't make much sense.
Everyone in the organization knows who Jordan Lyles is by now, but how are some of the prospects we should keep our eye on in the system doing?
-- Justin S., Houston
Have a question about the Astros?
E-mail your query to MLB.com Astros beat reporter Brian McTaggart for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content
Lyles is certainly at the top of everyone's list, and he could come to Spring Training next year competing for a spot in the starting rotation. The Astros are slowly building some depth in their system, and former first-round picks Delino DeShields Jr., a second baseman, and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz should be listed among their top prospects.
Outfielder Ariel Ovando, whom the Astros gave a record bonus of $2.6 million last season, is definitely a player to keep an eye on in the future. Infielders Jonathan Villar and Jimmy Paredes, both of whom were acquired in midseason trades last year, have high ceilings.
Former first-round picks Jiovanni Mier (shortstop), Mike Kvasnicka (third base/catcher) and 2010 Minor League Player of the Year Tanner Bushue are also among the team's top prospects. Outfielders Jack Shuck, Telvin Nash and Jay Austin are also ones to watch.
The Astros have done a nice job under the Wade-Bobby Heck regime of restocking the farm system through the Draft and trades. They got six prospects in return last season for trading away Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Pedro Feliz.
What is the status of J.R. Towles, and what do you think the Astros are planning for him?
-- Geryl D., Austin, Texas
Towles, the club's top prospect three years ago, has certainly seen his stock slip in recent years. The Astros have drafted several catchers the past few years, including 2008 first-round Draft pick Castro, who is now considered the starter. Towles beat out Castro in Spring Training for the starting job, but Towles has just looked overmatched at the plate.
Last year wound up begin pretty much a lost season for Towles, with a thumb injury and subsequent surgery ending his season. Unless he gets traded in the next two months, he'll come to Spring Training with plenty to prove. But Castro is the team's catcher of the future.
Do you see Jason Bourgeois getting playing time next year and Lee moving to first base with Brett Wallace not being ready?
-- Colin R., Houston
Bourgeois will be in the mix, but if Wallace winds up not being ready for first base, the Astros would like to see what Brian Bogusevic can do in the outfield. Bourgeois did a nice job last season and has some nice tools, including streak-of-lightning speed, but Bogusevic is a big, strong player who has the ability to drive the ball and hit some home runs. He also runs well himself.
Wallace will get every chance in Spring Training to prove he's ready offensively to handle the job full time, and if he's not then, Lee is back in left field for a fifth consecutive season. Wallace has a track record of hitting in the Minor Leagues and performed very well defensively last season for the Astros after coming over in an offshoot of the Oswalt trade. The Astros want to see what he can do with more experience.
With the addition of Barmes, as well as that the rumors the Astros are pursuing Hall, where does Manzella stand?
-- Colleen R., Clinton, Iowa
Manzella still has only 263 Major League at-bats to his name, so the jury is very much still out on him. Even though he got off to a rough start defensively last season, he settled down nicely and wound up making several nice defensive plays until he broke his finger diving for a ball and had to have surgery and missed more than six weeks.
Manzella has shown slow progress offensively throughout his career and has always performed well in his second year at the same level of competition, so it will be interesting to see how he does next year. That being said, the Astros had to beef up their offense somewhere, and they identified the middle infield as the most logical place it could be done, which means Manzella will have to come to Spring Training trying to win a spot in the club. Barmes appears to be the starting shortstop at this point.
How long with the Astros play Castro and Wallace as the season goes on if they don't show improvement? Why not spend some of the available surplus they have in free agency.
-- Bill C., Pineville, La.
I'm not sure the Astros have a surplus at this point. Wade has said more than once this offseason he would be dealing with some budget limitations and would be able to add some players in free agency if the team was creative, which could mean they would have to make a trade before taking another hefty contract.
That being said, the club has lots of time and money invested in Castro, a former first-round Draft pick, and pulled off a blockbuster deal to get Wallace. Both of them are just getting their feet wet at the Major League level and will be given every chance to succeed this season, but if they have to go to back to Triple-A at some point next year, it's not the end of the world.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.