12/07/08 9:00 PM EST
Astros set to lay groundwork
GM Wade will be active in discussions to improve club in Vegas
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
The Winter Meetings are a long-standing staple of baseball's offseason, but this year, the annual gathering is generating more buzz around the industry and among baseball fans. Perhaps this is because the Meetings are being held in America's playground, also known as Las Vegas. But more likely, the heightened interest stems from sheer curiosity in the wake of the country's economic climate descending on Major League Baseball, forcing some teams to act frugally while others still plan to spend like it's the year 2000.
Instead, Wolf is likely headed elsewhere and oft-injured Mike Hampton is the free-agent lefty of choice. The Astros are looking for pieces to add to the puzzle, but blockbusters -- via trade or free agency -- probably won't happen in Houston this winter.
That isn't to say the rotation is set. A starting five of Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Hampton, Brandon Backe and Brian Moehler seemingly doesn't scream "World Series." But if the Astros do add a pitcher, he likely won't be a headline-grabber. Houston would prefer not to sign a Type A free agent who was offered arbitration from his club, which may prevent it from pursuing Ben Sheets. The upper-tier of starting pitchers on the free-agent market are out of the Astros' price range, leaving them with few options as they attempt to shore up a rotation currently filled with several pitchers who fit the description of a No. 4 or 5 starter.
Wade would like to add a catcher to either back up Humberto Quintero or absorb the majority of the playing time should Quintero stumble. Also on the docket is a utility infielder whose specialty is shortstop, to spell an aging Miguel Tejada, who isn't quite the everyday player he once was.
Wade is methodical and deliberate, and he won't be pressured to make a deal at the Winter Meetings just for the sake of making a deal. It's more likely he'll lay the groundwork for future negotiations during his time in Las Vegas. Last week, he signed Hampton and Doug Brocail, wiping two major priorities off the drawing board. With those two transactions out of the way, he can turn his attention to shoring up the other areas of the team generating less attention.
One ongoing saga to keep an eye on, of course, is the status of Ty Wigginton and Jose Valverde, two trading chips the Astros have and will continue to dangle. They'd love to move Tejada's contract but realize that may be unrealistic, considering Tejada's declining production and the $13 million he's owed in '09. The three long-term contracts -- those belonging to Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman -- are immovable without permission, leaving Houston with only a couple of options if it wants to dump salary.
Valverde is garnering interest, but because he's only a year away from free agency, it may be tough to find a trade partner. Same goes for Wigginton.
The Astros are also keeping an eye on the Dec. 12 deadline when teams must tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. Many players will be looking for jobs after that date passes, and Wade anticipates a few attractive options to be available at that time.
The Winter Meetings will wrap up on Thursday with the Rule 5 Draft, and chances are the Astros have their eye on a few players. Wade has a good track record -- he picked Shane Victorino in '04 and Wesley Wright in '08 -- so expect the club to again look for that proverbial diamond in the rough.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.