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Astros charting different free-agency plan

Astros charting different free-agency plan

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Astros charting different free-agency plan
HOUSTON -- The Astros have made plenty of headlines within the last year, beginning with the announcement the club was for sale and followed by the blockbuster July trades of popular outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn -- all of which took place during a team-record 106-loss season.

While the impending sale of the club to a group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane awaits approval, the Astros likely won't be making any headlines when it comes to free agency.

The Astros remain in a full-fledged rebuilding mode and for the most part will be looking to fill their holes in 2012 from within. They played a whopping 20 rookies last year, and many of those players will be playing key roles in manager Brad Mills' third year at the helm.

By trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman last year and Pence and Bourn in July, the Astros have infused their once-barren farm system and should see many of the players they received in those trades get their feet wet at the Major League level.

"We'll do all the legwork we normally do and be prepared to read and react as opportunities present themselves, but I don't see us being major players in the free-agent market," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "I think the course we set out on actually a year ago with the Oswalt and Berkman trades, it's a course we have to continue to follow.

"We'll try to infuse as many young players into our situation as we possibly can and that being the case, we're committed to trying to stay young and build that core nucleus from within. I just don't see a scenario where we're major players in the market, but there could be opportunities to present themselves along the way that we have to be prepared for."

The Astros only have two players facing free agency -- outfielder Jason Michaels and shortstop Clint Barmes -- and neither is likely to return.

The veteran Michaels struggled all season as a pinch-hitter and an occasional starter in right field against left-handers before a broken hand ended his season in September. Barmes, whom the Astros traded for a year ago, missed the first month of the season after breaking his hand in Spring Training, but played a terrific defensive shortstop and provided some pop and veteran leadership.

Wade is resigned to the fact the Astros probably won't be able to bring Barmes back.

"I would have to assume that there are going to be clubs that have very significant interest in Clint because there's a dearth of quality shortstops on the market," he said. "Aside for the fact he can play multiple positions, if a club wanted to approach it in that vein, that could increase his value as well. We love what he's done for us here and over the course of last season and I think any club would like to have him."

CONTRACT ISSUES

Free agents: Clint Barmes, SS; Jason Michaels, OF.

Eligible for arbitration: J.A. Happ, LHP; Humberto Quintero, C.

Mutual options: None.

Non-tender possibilities: None.

AREAS OF NEED

Third base: Jimmy Paredes, called up when Chris Johnson was sent down at the end of July, arrived in the Majors ahead of schedule and performed better at the plate than he did in the Minor Leagues. He remains a work in progress defensively, though he has tons of athletic ability and should be able to find a spot on the field as long as he hits. There has been some talk about moving him to shortstop, and Matt Downs could get more playing time at third next spring. Johnson remains in the mix, too.

Shortstop: Barmes isn't expected to return next year after a one-year stint in Houston. The Astros would like to keep him, but he's likely to test the free-agent market and should have no problem getting a job. The Astros might have to spend some money in free agency at shortstop if they don't decide to move Paredes to the position. Angel Sanchez figures to get a long look in the spring as well. Switch-hitting Jonathan Villar, 20, is the club's shortstop of the future, but he's not quite ready.

Center field: The trade of Bourn to the Braves last summer created a free-for-all in center. The Astros received Jordan Schafer from the Braves, and he had mixed results in limited time. He'll get the bulk of the time in the spring. Jason Bourgeois played well last season in center and will continue to play all over, and J.B. Shuck and Brian Bogusevic are in the hunt.

Right field: As was the case when Bourn was dealt, right field became up for grabs when Pence was sent to the Phillies. Bogusevic, a former first-round Draft pick as a pitcher, took advantage of the chance to get extended playing time in right and put himself in the mix for 2012. There's a chance J.D. Martinez could be moved to right from left, which would open the door for Carlos Lee to move to left from first base and give others -- such as Brett Wallace -- a chance to compete at first base. Downs and Shuck have also seen time in right.

Bullpen: There figures to be plenty of jobs up for grabs in 2012, but the Astros have no shortage of candidates from within to try to fill them. Mark Melancon emerged as a viable closer, but veteran Brandon Lyon will return next year, along with workhorse Wilton Lopez. The steady flow of rookies who got their feet wet in the bullpen in '11 will be back to compete for jobs next spring with some Major League experience under their belt.

2012 payroll: The purpose of the trades of Pence and Bourn at the Trade Deadline was to shed payroll. The Astros were in the low $80-million range last year and figure to be in the $60-million range when you figure they have $47 million committed next year to Lee ($19 million), Brett Myers ($12 million), Wandy Rodriguez ($10.5 million) and Lyon ($5.5 million). The club could still try to trade Myers and Rodriguez to save more money, but it certainly won't have much to spend.

Brian McTaggart is reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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