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Inbox: What upgrades can be expected?

Inbox: What upgrades can be expected?

Apparently, Astros fans have some questions they'd like answered. Make that, more than 100 questions they'd like answered.

Since I decided earlier this month to do my first Inbox for MLB.com, my Blackberry has been vibrating like a jackhammer with questions coming in from the readers. It has taken me quite some time to sort through all the questions, most of which were about starting pitching.

I have taken some of the best and most popular questions and will address them to the best of my ability. I've been in contact with general manager Ed Wade almost daily in recent weeks, and while he's not about to tell me any secrets, I have a pretty good idea of what's going on.

But if Wade or owner Drayton McLane want to ever pass along some secrets, I'm all for that, too.

Now, onto the Inbox.

Will the Astros be able to upgrade their starting pitching next season? How could this upgrade not be the team's priority in the offseason?
-- Jim D., Collinsville, Miss.

I think everybody got big-time spoiled when Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were piling up wins from 2004-06. Oh, the memories.

Almost everybody wants to know why the Astros aren't going to sign a top-name starter like John Lackey, and the answer is simply money. Say what you will about the payroll and whether you think it should be higher, but the Astros have $54.5 million committed next year to four players and could be looking at $80 million accounted for after all the players under contract are signed for 2010. The payroll was $107 million last year, and McLane has said it will go down.

The Astros will likely consider pitchers who are coming off injuries or down years and can be had cheaper, and these are low-risk, high-reward gambles. The club is pleased with Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez at the top of the rotation and the development of Bud Norris. Brian Moehler was signed to be the No. 5 starter, and they will likely fill the final spot from within: Felipe Paulino, Wesley Wright or Yorman Bazardo.

That's not what fans want to hear, but that appears to be the reality of the Astros' economic situation.

Have a question about the Astros?
Brian McTaggartE-mail your query to MLB.com Astros beat reporter Brian McTaggart for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content
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Question:

I hear a lot of speculation that the Astros would love to keep at least one, if not both, of infielder Miguel Tejada and closer Jose Valverde. In light of Drayton's apparent insistence that payroll be reduced, and the clear problems the Astros had last season with starting pitching, why would they not let go of one or both and shore up the rotation? Are there attractive free-agent starting pitchers at $10 million per year that might warrant such a move? Seems LaTroy Hawkins can fill the closer role.
-- Michael G., Los Angeles

Wade has said he'd like to retain Tejada, to play third base, Valverde and Hawkins, but it probably isn't in the cards economically. The market for Tejada will be interesting. He had 199 hits and drove in 86 runs, but he's a declining player who certainly isn't an everyday shortstop anymore. He's going to have to take a pay cut, but how much? He definitely won't be able to get close to the $14 million he made in 2009.

The Astros have an offer on the table to Hawkins and would be comfortable with inserting him as their closer if Valverde goes elsewhere. I think Valverde will be tough to re-sign for the Astros. He made $8 million last year and has put three strong seasons together in a row. He's going to demand a large contract, but it's important to remember there are a lot of quality closers on the market, and that could drive prices down.

Why would someone want to own a Major League Baseball team if they don't want to do what it takes to put a competitive team together? It's hard to be a fan of 40 years and watch what the ownership has done of the years.
-- Steve R., Downey, Calif.

It depends on what you mean by "competitive." Yes, the Astros haven't been to the playoffs since 2005 and weren't in contention last season, but since McLane bought the team in 1993, it has been to the playoffs six times and made its first World Series appearance. The payroll was $107 million last season, which was in the top third of Major League teams. Whether that money was spent wisely, that's another debate. But I think the contention that the Astros haven't fielded competitive teams is misguided. Are they the Yankees? No, but they're not the Pirates either.

I keep hearing how Tejada will play third base, but I would much rather see Chris Johnson get a shot for less money and probably more pop. What do you know about this? Especially since we have Brad Mills and he came from Red Sox and Johnson's dad coaching in their Minor Leagues.
-- Adam G., Houston

Tejada has said he is willing to return to Houston and play third base, and that's where the Astros will put him if he does re-sign with him. They have re-signed Geoff Blum, and he will be the starter unless they can find a right-handed bat that can platoon with him. Does it sound like the Astros aren't that high on Johnson? Probably so. Otherwise, we'd be hearing management say they're thinking he could be their starting third baseman. Wade has said Tommy Manzella could start on Opening Day at shortstop.

Are the Astros going to do any trades this offseason? Will they trade either Oswalt, Lance Berkman, or Carlos Lee to cut back on money?
-- Michel M., Houston

You can be certain Wade will be active in the trade market, but whether he can pull off some trades is another story. The fact is Oswalt, Berkman and Lee all have no-trade clauses (they would have to waive the no-trade clause to get dealt), and they're not being shopped in the offseason anyway. The Astros' farm system is on the rise, but there are still not enough top prospects to entice teams to make a swap with Houston for an impact player that could help the Astros next year.

With the two years in a row of less than stellar numbers, is anyone chirping in Lance's ear about giving up the switch-hitting and just hit left-handed? I mean, he doesn't need to act like he needs both to stay in the game.
-- Steve G., Houston

Berkman thought about hitting strictly left-handed earlier in his career, but I don't think that's an option now.

Just a few offseason-related questions. So far, Houston has said it is focused on solidifying the bullpen. The past two years it seems as though some of our bullpen guys have pitched their arms off (Chris Sampson '09, Doug Brocail '08). This seems due to Houston's starters not going deep enough into games. Should we see this, the bullpen solidifying, as a sign that Houston will not be solidifying the starting rotation? Also, it seems as though the club has committed to Manzella at short, should we expect the same youth movement at third base with Johnson? Thanks Tag.
-- Jason C., Austin

I think you're onto something. Adding an impact starting pitcher is much more difficult than adding a few pieces to the bullpen, but in this day and age with pitch counts and bullpen specialists, starters aren't going deep into games and relief is much more important. There's no doubt the bullpen was abused last year, and that will certainly be addressed with the new coaching staff. The Astros would be comfortable starting the season with Manzella at short, but I think they're looking at veterans for third base. They have already re-signed Blum.

What chances do you think the Astros have at getting Pedro Feliz or Mark DeRosa if we don't sign Tejada?
-- Chandler A., Corpus Christi, Texas

Those are two very intriguing names and I wouldn't be surprised if the Astros inquired about them, if they haven't already. They are looking to add some offense at third, but again, they are willing to start the season with Blum-Keppinger at third base. So I don't think they're going to go nuts on money to get one of those guys.

Can any team consistently compete for a World Series title as long as the Yankees (and to a lesser extent, the Red Sox) can afford to spend twice as much on players as any other team? It sure doesn't give us Astros fans much hope when the team has one of the highest payrolls in MLB and we're still outspent by $100 million compared to the Yankees. If Houston hits the window and everything goes just right, we might win a title once, but it's impossible to sustain anything when the playing field is not level. It is very discouraging.
-- Jon H., Spanish Fork, Utah

Well, baseball has had just one team win multiple World Series titles since the Yankees' run ended in 2000, so there is some parity. And don't forget the low-budget Marlins won the World Series in 2003 and the Tampa Bay Rays made the World Series in 2008. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox of the world are going to be favorites as long as they outspend everyone, but if you have a great player development and make some good decisions in free agency, you can contend.

Does Koby Clemens have a future to play third base in the Majors?
-- Kris H., Houston

Uh, no. Clemens has not played well defensively at third base, which is why the club is now trying him at first base. He put up great offensive numbers last year in hitter-friendly Class A Lancaster, but he appears to me a man without a position.

Who is probably going to start behind the plate next year? J.R. Towles? Humberto Quintero? Or someone else we acquire during the offseason?
-- Nicholas W., Dallas

As of now, the Astros are content to enter Spring Training with the mix of Towles and Quintero with hopes former first-round pick Jason Castro comes along quickly. Don't be surprised to see the Astros sign a veteran to help fill the void, but any significant money will be spent elsewhere.

Why wasn't there an exit interview with former manager Cecil Cooper? Did he refuse to talk to anyone or was he told to be quiet by the Astros and get paid for the next year?
-- Floyd F., Arco, Idaho

I doubt Cooper was advised not to talk. Phil Garner was dismissed with a year left on his contract in 2007 and spoke to the media the day he was let go. He even joked with colleague Alyson Footer that he had the day off and she had to work. Oh, we miss Gar. I left Cooper multiple messages but he chose not to return them. As far as I know, he hasn't spoken to any media since he was let go. I would gladly take his call. Call me, Coop.

What is Rule 5?
-- Jan M., Houston

The Rule 5 Draft occurs each December and allows teams to select players on other team's Minor League rosters who aren't on the 40-man roster. This prevents teams from stockpiling talent, allowing young and talented players the chance to move up in somebody's organization.

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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