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Challenges await Astros in offseason

Challenges await Astros in offseason

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HOUSTON -- Astros general manager Ed Wade will have plenty on his plate this offseason, with the No. 1 priority being to find a full-time manager. Trying to fix the Astros' roster figures to be a much tougher challenge for Wade and his staff.

Coming off a disappointing season in which his team had the oldest roster in baseball and finished with a losing record for the second time in three seasons, Wade hopes to give the Astros a fresher look heading into 2010.

That will be easier said than done. The Astros' record payroll of $107 million in 2009 will likely be cut, and $54.5 million is already tied up in four players -- Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Kazuo Matsui and Roy Oswalt. Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez are due big raises in arbitration, making Wade's job more difficult.

"Our payroll is in all likelihood going to be lower than it was this year," Wade said. "It could be appreciably lower, but we don't know until we sit down and get the actual numbers."

Wade would like to surround the Astros' aging core of veteran players -- Berkman, Lee and Oswalt -- with some younger faces. Bud Norris figures to occupy a spot in the starting rotation after pitching well in his rookie season, and third baseman Chris Johnson and Tommy Manzella could comprise a rookie left side of the infield.

One of the Astros' top priorities will be upgrading a pitching staff that ranked near the bottom of the National League in quality starts, ERA and wins. The starting trio of Oswalt, Rodriguez and Norris could be a solid 1-2-3, but the Astros need better options at the bottom of the rotation.

"Pitching is something we have to pay a lot of attention to," Wade said. "All of us at different points of time have looked at the potential free-agent pitching lists and know that a lot of names that are on that list right now are potentials, in that they won't become real free agents because they'll be retained by their former clubs.

"We have to be cautious as to how strongly we portray our potential of being out there in the open market. The level of quality is going to be pretty small, which means the values placed on those guys is going to be pretty high."

Miguel Tejada, who had a terrific season and is a stalwart in the clubhouse, is a free agent. He would like to return to Houston, and the Astros might ask him to play third base. Closer Jose Valverde and setup man LaTroy Hawkins are also free agents, and retaining all three players with a limited budget will be tricky.

In addition to third base, the Astros also have to decide what to do at catcher. Neither J.R. Towles, Chris Coste or Humberto Quintero appear to be ready to handle the job full-time, and No. 1 prospect Jason Castro probably won't be ready by Opening Day.

Wade may not be able to solve all of the Astros' issues this winter, but he believes he can do enough tweaking to get Houston back into the postseason mix.

Contract issues
Free agents: Geoff Blum, IF; Aaron Boone, IF; Darin Erstad, IF/OF; Mike Hampton, LHP; LaTroy Hawkins, RHP; Jason Michaels, OF; Miguel Tejada, SS; Jose Valverde, RHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Michael Bourn, CF; Tim Byrdak, LHP; Chris Coste, C; Jeff Keppinger, IF; Chad Paronto, RHP; Hunter Pence, RF; Humberto Quintero, C; Wandy Rodriguez, LHP; Chris Sampson, RHP.
Player options: Brian Moehler, RHP (mutual option).
Club options: Doug Brocail, RHP.
Non-tender possibilities: Chris Sampson, RHP; Chad Paronto, RHP.

Catchers
• Humberto Quintero, .236 BA, 4 HRs, 14 RBIs
• J.R. Towles, .188 BA, 2 HRs, 3 RBIs
• Chris Coste, .224 BA, 2 HRs, 18 RBIs

The Astros signed Pudge Rodriguez prior to the start of the 2009 season because of a lack of catching depth and later traded him to the Rangers. They could be facing a similar scenario in 2010 as they await the arrival of first-round Draft pick Castro, who's expected to help at some point next year. Quintero and Towles haven't proven to be worthy of being a starter.

First base
• Lance Berkman, .274 BA, 25 HRs, 80 RBIs

Berkman is entering the final year of a six-year, $85 million contract, though the club holds an option for 2011. He's coming off one of his worst offensive seasons, though his numbers weren't too bad. He's still a bona fide slugger to anchor the lineup.

Second base
• Kazuo Matsui, .250 BA, 9 HRs, 46 RBIs

Finally healthy, Matsui played in a career-high amount of games in 2009 and was somewhat of a disappointment at the plate, but he made all the plays defensively. He's entering the final year of a three-year deal.

Shortstop
• Tommy Manzella, .200 BA, 0 HRs, 0 RBIs
• Jeff Keppinger, .256 BA, 7 HRs, 29 RBIs
• Miguel Tejada, .313 BA, 14 HRs, 86 RBIs

Manzella made his Major League debut in September, but he didn't get much playing time behind Tejada, who is a free agent in 2010 and unlikely to return to Houston. Manzella is a Major League-ready defensive player, but his offense remains a work in progress.

Third base
• Geoff Blum, .247 BA, 10 HRs, 49 RBIs
• Jeff Keppinger, .256 BA, 7 HRs, 29 RBIs
• Chris Johnson, .288 BA, 13 HRs, 48 RBIs (AA, AAA)

Blum is a free agent and would like to return in 2010, but the Astros have other options. The versatile Keppinger isn't a full-time starter, so prospect Johnson could finally get his chance to prove if he's ready to play in the Majors after a solid 2009 season at Triple-A Round Rock.

Outfield
• Hunter Pence, .282 BA, 25 HRs, 72 RBIs
• Michael Bourn, .285 BA, 3 HRs, 35 RBIs
• Carlos Lee, .300 BA, 26 HRs, 102 RBIs

The Astros are set in the outfield for a while, it appears. Lee had his fifth consecutive 100-RBI season in 2009, Bourn had a breakout season and was named the team's Most Valuable Player and Pence made his first All-Star team and was among the team leaders in homers.

Rotation
• Roy Oswalt, 8-6, 4.12 ERA, 181 1/3 IP
• Wandy Rodriguez, 14-12, 3.02 ERA, 205 2/3 IP
• Bud Norris, 6-3, 4.53 ERA, 55 2/3 IP
• Brian Moehler, 8-12, 5.47 ERA, 154 2/3 IP
• Felipe Paulino, 3-11, 6.27 ERA, 97 2/3 IP
• Yorman Bazardo, 1-3, 7.88 ERA, 32 IP

There's no doubt the Astros are desperate need for another solid starting pitcher, but the 1-2-3 punch of Oswalt, Rodriguez and Norris isn't a bad place to start. Oswalt only won eight games before his season was cut short with a back injury, but Rodriguez blossomed into a No. 2 starter and Norris was terrific in his debut. Moehler could return via free agency, but youngsters like Paulino and Bazardo will be given chances to win a spot.

Bullpen
• Tim Byrdak, 1-2, 3.23 ERA, 61 1/3 IP
• Jeff Fulchino, 6-4, 3.40 ERA, 82 IP
• Sammy Gervacio, 1-1, 2.14 ERA, 21 IP
• Wesley Wright, 3-4, 5.44 ERA, 44 2/3 IP
• Geoff Geary, 1-3, 8.10 ERA, 20 IP
• Chris Sampson, 4-2, 5.04 ERA, 55 1/3 IP
• Alberto Arias, 2-1, 3.35 ERA, 45 2/3 IP
• LaTroy Hawkins, 1-4, 2.13 ERA, 63 1/3 IP
• Jose Valverde, 4-2, 2.33 ERA, 54 IP

Injuries ravaged the bullpen in 2009, but that allowed the Astros to unearth solid arms in Arias and Fulchino. The back end of the bullpen remains a concern, with '09 setup man Hawkins and closer Valverde free agents and questionable to return. Needless to say, the Astros will be in the market for bullpen help.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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