With the Astros still in the early stages of the rebuilding process and not wanting to block the playing time of any of the young players they're eager to take a look at next year, adding a designated hitter will allow them to improve the lineup without impeding youth.
Houston is ready to give looks to Matt Dominguez at third base, Brett Wallace at first base, Jason Castro at catcher and Justin Maxwell, Brandon Barnes, J.D. Martinez and Fernando Martinez in the outfield. General manager Jeff Luhnow likes his middle infield -- shortstop Jed Lowrie and All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve.
The addition of DH wouldn't take at-bats from those players."Whoever we get is going to come at the expense of our players getting some at-bats," Luhnow said. "Clearly there's room for one bat and that is at the DH position. Adding two bats? It depends on what position they play. We really don't have a lot of spots to go around at this point."
The Astros will also be in the market to improve their pitching depth in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. The rotation has two spots open after Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles, and the young bullpen could certainly use a veteran arm at the back end.
Here is a quick glance at the Astros' situation heading into the Winter Meetings, which begin Monday in Nashville, Tenn.
Designated hitter: With the Astros moving to the American League West in 2013, they will need a full-time designated hitter for the first time in their 52-year history. Houston lacked power last year and didn't have anyone in the lineup who was a consistent power threat, so look for the Astros to sign someone who could impact their lineup with the long ball.
Starting pitcher: Luhnow is content with Norris, Harrell and Lyles at the top of the rotation, and there are several candidates -- lefty Dallas Keuchel, prospect Jarred Cosart and veteran Edgar Gonzalez, to name a few -- who will battle for the final two spots. But Houston would be well served finding someone with a track record of eating some innings like right-hander Philip Humber, who was claimed off waivers from the White Sox and signed to a one-year deal.
Outfield depth: There's no shortage of bodies in the outfield, led by Maxwell. Claimed off waivers early last season, Maxwell led the team in homers and figures to be the starter at one of the three outfield spots. J.D. Martinez, Fernando Martinez, Jimmy Paredes and Barnes are among those competing for the other two spots, but don't be surprised to see someone else thrown into the mix.
Bullpen: Last year's trades of Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon left the Astros very young in the bullpen and in need of a veteran capable of pitching late in games. Wilton Lopez is in line to be the closer, but if he's traded there becomes a huge need for a setup man or closer. As it stands, Houston could use another arm or two in relief.
Who they can or need to trade
RHP Wilton Lopez: The Astros nearly sent Lopez to the Phillies earlier this week before the trade fell through. Houston would likely get some takers for Lowrie and Altuve, but management sees them as key players for the future.
First baseman Jonathon Singleton will be in camp trying to win a job, whether at first base or maybe even at designated hitter. Right-hander Cosart will also be trying to win a Major League job, but most of the rest of Houston's top prospects are a few years away -- 2012 No. 1 pick Carlos Correa, 2011 first-round pick George Springer, 2010 first-round pick Delino DeShields Jr. and young pitchers Lance McCullers and Mike Foltynewicz.
The Astros finally have some real depth in their Minor League system, and that talent should begin bubbling to the top in the next few years.
Rule 5 Draft
The Astros have the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft for the second year in a row and have narrowed the list of players they are targeting. Houston will likely be able to get a player capable of competing for a starting spot in the lineup, but don't be surprised to see them add to their pitching depth with the best available arm.
Could Houston take a shot at Cubs 2012 Minor League pitcher of the Year Nick Struck or Rangers Minor League slugger Chris McGuiness? We'll find out next Thursday.
Big contracts they might unload
Lowrie, who made $1.15 million last year and could double that in arbitration, is the highest-paid player on the team prior to any free-agent signings, so the Astros aren't in need to unload any contracts.
Arbitration-eligible: SS Jed Lowrie ($1.15 million in 2012), RHP Bud Norris ($511,000), LHP Wesley Wright ($512,000), RHP Wilton Lopez ($515,500).
It's a good bet whoever the Astros sign to be their designated hitter could be their highest-paid player in 2013. Houston management has said repeatedly it's not going to start spending big money in free agency until the team starts turning the corner, so the Astros could be around $30 million, depending on signings and arbitration.