"We're going to have to work to see who's out there and what our needs are," McLane said. "We're not like we were when we signed Carlos Lee three years ago [to a six-year, $100-million contract] or when we signed free agents in the past. We're just going to have to evaluate what's on the market, what our needs are and how the economy is looking."
The Astros and other teams can begin signing free agents Friday, and the first task at hand for Houston is re-signing some of its own. That list includes shortstop Miguel Tejada, closer Jose Valverde, reliever LaTroy Hawkins and backup outfielders Jason Michaels and Darin Erstad.
Astros general manager Ed Wade said the club hasn't closed the door on bringing back any of its free agents and already has an offer on the table to Hawkins, who saved 11 games last year and posted a 2.13 ERA. He made $3.5 million last season, but re-signing Tejada ($14 million in 2009) and Valverde ($8 million in 2009) figures to be more expensive.
"We have to wait and see what the competition is for each of those players," Wade said. "We think we've got a pretty good idea of what the value is for a guy like LaTroy. He's going through the process like he did a year ago when we were successful in retaining him, and certainly we're anxious to get him back here. As far as Jose and Miguel, those are two things that have to play out a little bit."
The Astros are handicapped financially by having $54.5 million tied up in four players -- Lee, first baseman Lance Berkman, pitcher Roy Oswalt and second baseman Kazuo Matsui. What's more, All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence, Gold Glove center fielder Michael Bourn and team Pitcher of the Year Wandy Rodriguez are due huge raises in arbitration.
Wade said the Astros need to address the back end of their bullpen, especially if Hawkins and Valverde sign elsewhere. Hawkins has the experience and could close in Valverde's absence, but the club would still like to fortify the bullpen.
Houston will also be on the lookout for a third baseman who can provide some offense, though Wade said he would be content with switch-hitting Geoff Blum getting most of the starts like he did last year. Blum hit .247 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs in 120 games.
The plan last season was for Blum to split time with Aaron Boone, but Boone missed pretty much the entire season. Jeff Keppinger, who is returning, got plenty of playing time at third base, and rookie Chris Johnson could be in the mix, too.
"It behooves us to look at a way to add offense," Wade said. "In some fashion we have to address the back end of the bullpen, whether we retain Valverde and Hawkins or go out on the market through free agency or trade to fill those spots. That has to be a front-burner issue for us before Spring Training.
"We're not going to all of a sudden wake up the day after tomorrow and decide someone that never closed before is going to be a great closer. We'll approach it from the standpoint of needing to have addressed it with Jose Valverde, but also to take a look at other options."
If Michaels and Erstad both depart, the Astros will be shopping for backup outfielders, too. And don't be surprised to see Houston take a flier on a veteran starting pitcher willing to come to camp on a Minor League contract and compete for a spot in the rotation.
"We've made contact with the agents for a lot of players," Wade said. "We do have a desire to see if there's a way to retain several of the guys who were with us a year ago. We'll continue to explore the market. The goal during the offseason is try to make sure we take advantage of every opportunity to get better.
"Free agency presents certain opportunities, and we have to see who the right fits are from the standpoint of talent, from the standpoint of salary and from the standpoint of length of contract. We'll be aggressive in our pursuit, whether we're out there making a lot of offers remains to be seen."