It will be an interesting offseason for the Houston Astros. The team has holes nearly everywhere, but they're not going to go out and spent nine figures in free agency. That's not how you get better for the long-term, and it doesn't jive with the plan that Jeff Luhnow and company have in place.
Like I said, the Astros have holes galore on their team. The only real positions they're set at are up the middle at shortstop, second base, and catcher. Everything else…well, the Astros will likely end up going with young players as opposed to free agents. But if the Astros *were* to look for free agents, I think they would be going after corner players (first and third base, left and right field). Aside from two months each of Matt Dominguez and Fernando Martinez (which seems unsustainable), Houston really didn't get much out of the corners in 2012, and their best young talent isn't major league ready yet.
If the Astros want to cut bait on Brett Wallace at first base, a buy low option at the position could be a guy in the mold of James Loney or Carlos Pena, who were both vastly overpaid this season and didn't produce enough for a contender to seriously consider them for a starting role in 2013. I don't think that Houston will go after an outfielder, opting to go with JD Martinez along with Martinez and Justin Maxwell, but a veteran bench-type option like Ryan Spilborghs could work out well enough as a stopgap. If only they didn't let Justin Ruggiano just walk on to the Marlins last season….he had a great half season in Miami after Houston cut him loose.
The Astros successfully jettisoned all of their big contracts last season, and that's a testament to Luhnow and his crew. The Astros only have five players up for arbitration going into 2013, and only veteran backup catcher Chris Snyder has a guaranteed salary, but that's in the form of a $4 million mutual option that will probably be denied by the Astros. Three of those five arbitration eligible players are relievers: Edgar Gonzalez, Wilton Lopez, and Wesley Wright. Lopez served as the team's closer to finish up last year, and he could be a fantastic sell-high option as a 29-year old who doesn't blow batters away and relies on generating bad content. Gonzalez is non-tender bait, while Wright could generate interest among some teams looking for a middle reliever. I don't think the team will (or should be) look to deal first time arbitration eligible starter Bud Norris, but Lucas Harrell could be dealt after a breakout campaign at age 27 after rotting away in the minors with the White Sox for years. The Astros also possess an extremely attractive piece in shortstop Jed Lowrie, the highest paid member of the team that is two years away from free agency and has star potential…when healthy.
Prospects, prospects, and more prospects. Luhnow and his staff aren't going to sit down and say "let's make a run for Justin Upton". While it would make sense from the point of view of getting a star building block on the team, it wouldn't make sense in that Houston won't be competing by the time Upton is a free agent. Instead of current major leaguers in their primes, if Houston looks to make deals this winter, they're going to go with the same formula they did during the summer: trading higher priced players for younger players who will be major league ready in a year or two. The Carlos Lee for Matt Dominguez, Wandy Rodriguez for a trio of prospects, and Chris Johnson for Marc Krauss/Bobby Borchering deal are fine examples of the type of players Houston will be looking for in return this winter. Houston won't be looking to deal prospects for veterans, they'll be going in the other direction.