The Houston Astros got decimated by fans and members of the media who didn't grasp their rebuilding strategy. SPEND MONEY, they cried, apparently ignorant to the fact that the Astros would be in a worse spot spending $80 million on payroll and losing 90 games than they would be if they spent $20 million and lost 110. Houston's strategy started to bear some fruit last year with solid performances by young talent like Jonathan Villar, Jason Castro, Jarred Cosart, and Brett Oberholtzer, and those guys will likely be joined by even more young talent in 2014, led by Jonathan Singleton and George Springer.
The Astros have a total of one free agent this offseason: pitcher Erik Bedard. the lone player remaining on their roster at the end of the year that was making more than $1 million. Don't expect the Astros to go out and jump into the bidding for players like Robinson Cano, but they could go after Shin-Soo Choo, and are clearly committed to building a winner for the future after getting deeply involved in the bidding for Cuban star Jose Dariel Abreu. The club is looking for a veteran starting pitcher, bullpen help, and an outfield bat, and there are plenty of players on the market that can fill those holes without breaking the bank and crippling the club with a Carlos Lee-esque contract.
There are a lot of directions for the Astros to go. Masahiro Tanaka could be a very interesting direction for them, especially after seeing the success that Yu Darvish has had with their intrastate rivals in Arlington. But in all honesty, I think the Astros will look at guys like Joe Saunders, Mike Pelfrey, Jeff Francis, John Lannan…you know, veterans that could be nice buy-low options that could be spun off at the deadline. I think Houston's front office is smart enough to not guarantee a high salary over a few seasons to a veteran pitcher, which would take them out of the bidding for guys like Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, and Ervin Santana.
As for the outfield bat, there's not a lot out there. Aside from the club's interest in Choo, I could see the Astros perhaps sniffing around someone like Chris Young, who had a down year in Oakland but is still just 30 and laden with potential. The bullpen is a more complicated issue for the team, but let's be honest: spending a lot of money on relievers is a fool's errand. The Astros gave Jose Veras $2 million guaranteed last winter ($1.85 million for 2013 and a club option for 2014 with a $150,000 buyout), and spun him to the Tigers at the trade deadline for 19-year old prospect Danry Vasquez. Houston isn't going to jump head first into the bidding for Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney, or potential free agent Joe Nathan, but players like Kyle Farnsworth, Carlos Marmol, Jose Valverde, and potential free agent Matt Lindstrom could be solid options for the team.
Unlike in prior years, the Astros aren't chock-full of potential trade candidates. And quite frankly, all of the players they do have that could be traded would likely take a hefty return since they're all either pre-arbitration or just entering arbitration. In fact, looking at Houston's roster, there's only one player I can see them even listening on this winter: catcher Jason Castro. Castro had an incredible 2013 for Houston, hitting .276/.350/.485 with 18 homers in 491 plate appearances. If a club that needs catching doesn't want to pay Brian McCann or Jarrod Saltalamacchia the oodles of money they'll command, and they don't want to roll the dice with an older backstop like Carlos Ruiz or AJ Pierzynski, maybe they'll inquire about the 26-year old Castro. I doubt the Astros would be too inclined to trade him unless they got a package in return comparable to what the Phillies sent south for Hunter Pence, but after 22-year old Max Stassi had a great year in AA in 2013, maybe they'll move Castro. At the same time, the public stigma over trading their lone 2013 All-Star could be too much for even this front office to bear.
Plain and simple, young talent. Houston's not going to get involved in the process for someone like David Price and deal away some of their young talent – that's just silly. What I think the Astros *could* do is a "challenge" trade or two, where you essentially trade a prospect for a prospect. Maybe the Cardinals are so desperate for a shortstop that they offer the club part of their never ending stream of young, big league read pitching for Jonathan Villar. I highly doubt that'll happen, but it's the type of offer the Astros should seek as opposed to kicking the can a little further down the road.