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Astros eyeing starters, catchers at Meetings

@brianmctaggart
December 5, 2019

HOUSTON -- The Astros will hit the Winter Meetings in San Diego looking to upgrade their pitching staff and find a starting catcher in preparation to defend their American League pennant and aim for 100 wins for the fourth year in a row. The club will return its core nucleus

HOUSTON -- The Astros will hit the Winter Meetings in San Diego looking to upgrade their pitching staff and find a starting catcher in preparation to defend their American League pennant and aim for 100 wins for the fourth year in a row.

The club will return its core nucleus of position players from its franchise-record 107-win team making it a contender in the AL once again. The Astros face significant losses to the pitching staff in free agency -- Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, Will Harris, Joe Smith and Collin McHugh -- so adding some arms, starters and relievers, is a priority.

These are Winter Meetings FAQs to know

Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow said that the early movement on the pitching market -- Cole Hamels signed with Atlanta and Zack Wheeler, with Philadelphia -- could lead to him making some deals in San Diego.

“I’m excited the market seems to be moving more quickly this year and we’re certainly going to be having all the relevant conversations in San Diego and I’d love to make a transaction or two,” Luhnow said. “We’ll have to wait and see how it goes. It is encouraging teams are active and players and agents are willing to do things earlier they have in the past two years. That all bodes well for a more active San Diego Meetings.”

MLB Hot Stove tracker

Before the club heads to the Winter Meetings, here is an outline for where the Astros stand:

Club needs: There are clear holes in the rotation and bullpen, as well at starting catcher. Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and a healthy Lance McCullers Jr. headline the 2020 rotation, and there are a handful of younger arms -- Jose Urquidy, Bryan Abreu, etc. -- who could factor into the mix. But Houston needs a veteran starter. Like last offseason's signing of Miley, the Astros are likely to add a pitcher from the lower end of the free-agent market, or trade for a mid-level starter. Bringing back Harris would shore up the bullpen, and the return of free agent Robinson Chirinos is probably their best bet at starting catcher at this point.

MLB free agents by position

Whom might they trade? The Astros cleared up some space in their outfield Thursday by sending Jake Marisnick to the Mets for a pair of Minor Leaguers, but they’d still like to move outfielder Josh Reddick (and most of his $13 million salary) to make room in right field for Kyle Tucker.

Prospects to know: Right-hander Forrest Whitley, their No.1 prospect by MLB Pipeline (No. 16 overall), is looking to put it all together in 2020 following a pair of seasons marred by a suspension, a right shoulder injury and underperformance. Abreu (No. 4) dazzled at times in his big league debut last season, made the American League Championship Series roster and has put himself on the radar to make the club out of the spring. Infielder Abraham Toro (No. 5) showed some promise last season in his debut with the Astros and is the kind of player who could benefit from rosters expanding to 26 in '20. Right-handed pitchers Javier (No. 9), Brandon Bielak (No. 10) and Urquidy (No. 11) are likely to see big league innings in 2020.

Payroll summary: The Astros’ estimated payroll for 2020 is set to surpass the $208 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, and that’s before making any significant additions. Verlander ($33 million), José Altuve ($29 million) and Alex Bregman ($13 million) are set to have large contract extensions kick in, and the Astros will pay $24.7 million of the $35 million owed to Greinke next year. Reddick ($13 million) and Michael Brantley ($16 million) will be in the last years of their deals, along with George Springer, who could approach $20 million in his final year arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors. Houston will add more payroll, but there’s not a lot of flexibility.

One question: Will the Astros bring back Gerrit Cole?

Astros owner Jim Crane said shortly after the World Series that the club would "take a run" at re-signing Cole, but it’s going to be very hard. Houston’s payroll has already leaked over the luxury tax threshold and the signing of Zack Wheeler by the Phillies to a five-year, $118-million deal sheds some light on the money being spent on the starting pitcher market. Cole is worth substantially more than Wheeler, which probably means that he’s going to be too rich for the financially strapped Astros to afford. What’s more, Houston's Trade Deadline acquisition to land Greinke was seen as a replacement for Cole, though Cole is much younger and better at this point in his career.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.