The Astros, who lost a combined 213 games in their final two seasons in the National League, will be looking to improve their run production, starting pitching and bullpen when executives, agents and most everybody else involved in the game gathers Dec. 3-6 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.
The biggest news the Astros made at the Winter Meetings a year ago was hiring Luhnow from the Cardinals, where he helped construct a couple of World Series championship teams in player development. With the Astros' Minor League system on the rise, Luhnow hopes to impact the Astros in free agency or through a trade.
"It's a good opportunity, first of all, to discuss possible trade matches with other clubs, and we're going to be doing a lot of that," Luhnow said. "We've already started some of that. And secondly, a lot of the free agents and their representatives/agents are there at the Winter Meetings, so it's a good opportunity to talk to them firsthand and to get the ball rolling on any discussions."
While some teams may be pressed to leave Nashville having made a splash, Luhnow said he's not going to let the calendar dictate the right time to make a deal.
"It's always hard to predict where something is going to happen before, during or after the Winter Meetings, but our expectation is we're going to get some work done there and it would be nice to come out of there with a signing or two, if possible," he said. "We're not going to let who we sign be driven by the timing. We're going to sign the players that we feel have the best fit, whether it's before, during or after the Winter Meetings."
Luhnow made a flurry of trades last season to slash payroll, sending off veterans like Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Chris Johnson and Wandy Rodriguez in exchange for prospects. They pretty much left the cupboard bare as far as trading chips go, but there's sure to be interest in shortstop Jed Lowrie and All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve.
The Astros, though, would have to be blown away to disrupt the middle of the infield, which, when healthy was perhaps the biggest bright spot on the club in 2012.
At this point, Houston is more likely to add offense by acquiring a corner infielder or an outfielder -- someone who is capable of handling the designated-hitter role. The Astros are searching first for a full-time DH in advance of the switch to the AL. Luhnow has said the club would also like to add another catcher to back up Jason Castro.
Like most teams, the Astros will be in the market for starting pitching, which is never cheap. Luhnow likes Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles at the top of the rotation, but he wants to bring in someone to compete with Dallas Keuchel, Jarred Cosart and others for the final two spots in the rotation.
The bullpen could be dramatically different next year, and there's a need for a veteran arm to join Wesley Wright and Wilton Lopez.
The Astros aren't going to be dishing out huge contracts or signing anyone to deals beyond two years at this point in their rebuilding stage, but they're prepared to pay for some pitching.
"Early in the offseason, you get a very preliminary read on what the market is going to look like," Luhnow said. "I think it's really not until after the Winter Meetings are over do you have a better feel for the market. Pitching is always going to be expensive in the free-agent market; it doesn't matter what year it is. All the clubs want more pitching, so there's going to be multiple bidders on most pitchers, and that's the reality of the marketplace. I don't think that is different from any other year."
Just how much the Astros are prepared to spend remains to be seen. Luhnow categorized the team's 2013 payroll as a moving target based on projected revenues, including incoming revenue from the team's new regional sports network partnership with the NBA's Houston Rockets, but don't expect to see Houston go too far north of $30 million, if that.
Prior to offseason trade acquisitions, the Astros' biggest payroll commitments will be to Norris and Lowrie, both of whom are eligible for arbitration and could get between $2-3 million each. The team has no other sizable payroll obligations for 2013 at this point.
Luhnow said he expects owner Jim Crane and president and CEO George Postolos to consider any reasonable opportunity to improve the team.
"I just need to present a compelling case, and we're going to spend our dollars wisely and invest in making the team better in the short term, while not compromising the long-term viability," he said. "Given those guidelines, that's the path we're going to go down."