HOUSTON -- The Astros are ready to start spending some money.
No, don't expect $100 million contracts at this point in their rebuilding process, but they've reached the point where the payroll will start to increase. The Astros have identified which young players will play key roles next year, and they'll hit the open market to fill some of their holes through free agency.
Owner Jim Crane told MLB.com in early October that the club could have a payroll between $50 and 60 million next year, a substantial increase from the $13 million payroll last season. That means the Astros could have about $40 million to spread among three or four players on the open market.
"If you add three or four key positions and bring in a couple of guys [from the Minor Leagues] that are ready, this team is pretty competitive pretty quickly with the starting pitching we've got," Crane said. "We're deep in pitching."
Unlike last year, when the Astros signed Jose Veras and then dealt him away at the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- a move that decimated the bullpen -- the club plans to take a different approach this winter. General manager Jeff Luhnow said the club will sign players with the idea of keeping them around rather than using them as trade bait.
The Astros rolled the dice on Veras, starting pitcher Erik Bedard and veteran sluggers Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel last winter, but only Bedard lasted the entire season. Those players were filling holes while the Astros awaited the arrival of some prospects from the Minor Leagues.
Bedard is unlikely to return, but the Astros still need a veteran starting pitcher to put into their young rotation. The top priority, however, will be at the back of the bullpen, which became a glaring need following the trade of Veras.
The Astros could also use a veteran slugger with a few good years remaining, unlike the signings of Pena and Ankiel last winter. They were at the end of the line. There's a need for a corner outfielder with power to put in the meat of the lineup to help increase run production. The Astros were last in the American League in slugging percentage last season.
Free agents: LHP Bedard, RHP Philip Humber, OF Trevor Crowe.
Eligible for arbitration: C Jason Castro.
Non-tender candidates: RHP Lucas Harrell, OF J.D. Martinez, 1B Brett Wallace.
Club options: Humber (declined).
Mutual options: None.
Areas of need
Bullpen: The Astros struggled mightily to close games following the trade that sent closer Veras to the Tigers at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in July. It's no secret the Astros will be in the market to upgrade the back end of their bullpen with veteran arms in the setup and closing roles. There are enough promising young arms to fill out the other spots, but help is desperately needed at the back end.
Corner outfielder: The 2013 season ended with an outfield mix of L.J. Hoes, Brandon Barnes, Martinez, Crowe and Marc Krauss. Robbie Grossman would have been starting daily had he not been injured, but there was a glaring need for some power. The Astros could use a veteran power bat to hit fourth in the lineup and occupy right field, and play alongside top prospect George Springer, who should start in center next year.
Starting pitcher: There will be no shortage of promising young starting pitchers, including Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Dallas Keuchel, Brad Peacock and Jordan Lyles. The need remains for a veteran arm to chew up innings and lead the way for the kids. Bedard served in that role last season, but the Astros will be on the hunt for better options.
The payroll was stripped to the bare minimum last year, with the exception of the economical extension signed by Jose Altuve. A $50 to 60 million expenditure toward contracts for the 2014 season should be enough to fill major needs through free agency, though a contract extension with All-Star catcher Castro could be looming.