With baseball's annual Winter Meetings set to take place Dec. 7-10 in Indianapolis, the Hot Stove will begin in earnest when general managers and agents get the chance to spend quality time together and talk about deals. Astros GM Ed Wade and his front-office staff will be making the trip, armed with the task of trying to upgrade a club coming off an 88-loss season.
"It gives us a chance to sit face-to-face with other clubs," Wade said. "We had a chance to do a little bit of that at the General Managers Meetings [in early November], but the timing of that wasn't conducive to having real substantial discussions.
"We were still in the midst of the free-agent-filing period at that stage, so there could be somewhat more substantial conversations this time around. But even then, from a trade standpoint, the environment is going to be a little bit quiet just because so many free agents are still out there and on the market."
The Astros' top priority remains re-signing their own free agents, a group that includes closer Jose Valverde, reliever LaTroy Hawkins and infielder Miguel Tejada, who, at this stage of his career, appears destined for a move to third base from shortstop.
Still, Wade will be on the lookout for help at the back of the bullpen. The Astros would have an even bigger need in that area if they lose Valverde and/or Hawkins to free agency. Wade also wants to explore the possibility of finding an offensive player to play third base and platoon with Geoff Blum.
Blum signed for 2010 shortly after the end of the regular season, but the Astros would prefer a platoon situation if possible. They began last season with Blum and Aaron Boone at third, but Boone missed nearly the entire season after undergoing open-heart surgery.
Wade could also kick the tires on a veteran catcher in case top prospect Jason Castro isn't ready to start on Opening Day.
The challenge for the Astros remains economics. They have $54.5 million committed to four players -- Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt and Kazuo Matsui -- and will have to dish out sizable raises in arbitration to Wandy Rodriguez, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn.
Wade engineered a handful of trades shortly after he took over the Astros late in the 2007 season and acquired Tejada, Valverde and Bourn, among others, but it's more difficult for the Astros to improve via trade this year. Berkman, Lee and Oswalt have no-trade clauses, and the talent in the upper reaches of the Minor League system hasn't been restocked.
Don't be surprised to see the Astros try to acquire a starting pitcher, but not one of the high-priced free agents. Houston made a run last year at re-signing Randy Wolf before pulling out of the negotiations when money became a factor. Wolf and Wade have a long history in Philadelphia and Houston, but it's unlikely the left-hander will return to Minute Maid Park.
Wade likes the way the rotation sets up with Oswalt, Rodriguez and Bud Norris, but it's no surprise the Astros could use another arm.
Valverde, who made $8 million last season, is a free agent and appears destined to test the free-agent market after going 4-2 with a 2.33 ERA and 25 saves. Perhaps that's why the Astros have been pushing hard to retain Hawkins, who saved 11 games last year in Valverde's absence.
Hawkins, who lives in the Dallas area, made nearly $4 million last season when incentives are included, and he could attract quite a bit of interest on the free-agent market. Wade has said he'd be comfortable with Hawkins beginning the season as the closer if Valverde leaves, considering Hawkins has experience as a closer.
The Astros didn't make much noise at the Winter Meetings last year in Las Vegas and likely won't this year, though Wade could set the stage for future deals. In a little more than two years on the job, Wade has proven he's not afraid to make a deal if he has the resources to get it done.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.