HOUSTON -- How does the best team in baseball get better? That's the challenge for Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff when baseball's annual Winter Meetings get underway Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Meetings conclude with the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 14.
The Astros went into the Winter Meetings a year ago having finished their offseason heavy lifting, but a shorter offseason this year on the heels of their first World Series championship means there's still work to be done. The club's biggest task is clear: Add relief pitching.
"We've got some guys at the top of our list that we've been checking in on," Luhnow said Friday. "Right now, the market is stalled and there's really nothing happening. We're going to be opportunistic. Last year was a little different for us. We targeted very specific players. We went out and were aggressive and got them early.
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"This year, the market is behaving differently and we're behaving differently as well. There's no rhyme or reason to it. We know what we need and we're going to be opportunistic. There's quite a few good options out there for the things we're looking for. Whether it happens early or late, something will happen before Spring Training."
While left-handed relief pitching appears to be the Astros' biggest need, Luhnow said upgrading the bullpen as a whole is the priority.
"It's really about finding the best upgrades to our pitching staff that we can find to give us the depth and quality that we need to get through a long season and hopefully another long postseason," Luhnow said. "We're not specifically focusing on one hand or another."
The way manager A.J. Hinch handled the bullpen in the postseason -- often using starters in relief -- is an indication of the trust the Astros have in their bullpen overall. Ken Giles will return as closer after a shaky postseason, along with steady Will Harris and Chris Devenski. Joe Musgrove could continue to be a bullpen weapon, as could converted starter Brad Peacock, but the Astros have a need for some more arms, especially left-handers.
Marwin Gonzalez started in left field during the postseason, but his strength is moving around and starting at different positions. The Astros have an opening for a left fielder who could play alongside George Springer and Josh Reddick in the outfield, with Jake Marisnick as a backup. Derek Fisher may be ready to fill that void, but expect the Astros to explore and see who's available on other teams or free agency.
Yes, the Astros have a wealth of starting pitching with Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh and Peacock all coming back. As we saw this past season, injuries can really take a toll, so having another solid starter wouldn't hurt. Not that the Astros are going to be in the market for any of the big free-agent names like Jacob Arrieta, but adding another arm could allow them to move Peacock to the bullpen, too.
Who they can trade if necessary
RHP Michael Feliz
Feliz has shown spurts where he's been dominant, but he has yet to put it all together. He struggled to find consistency last year despite striking out 70 batters in 48 innings.
RHP Francis Martes
Martes flashed strikeout stuff in his Major League debut this past year, but he struggled to find the strike zone too often. Martes is barely 22 years old, but he might not be the untouchable prospect he was a year ago.
Fisher struck out 54 times in 146 at-bats in his big league debut this past year coming off a stellar Triple-A season. His speed-power combination makes him attractive.
1B A.J. Reed
It's too late for the Astros to deal the slugger and get the kind of value they could have gotten two offseasons ago. Reed didn't show well in his big league debut in 2016, and he had only six big league at-bats this past year.
IF/OF Tony Kemp
Kemp can do a lot of things well, but he might not have enough impact to crack the Astros' talented roster on a long-term basis. That makes him a trade chip.
Per MLBPipeline.com, the Astros' top prospects are outfielder Kyle Tucker, right-handers Forrest Whitley and J.B. Bukauskas, outfielder/first baseman Yordan Alvarez, infielder Colin Moran, right-hander David Paulino and left-hander Cionel Perez. Tucker and Whitley are both 20, and they performed well at Double-A to end the season. Luhnow has said Whitley could be in the big leagues next year. Bukauskas, their first-round Draft pick in 2017, could be on a fast track to the big leagues.
Rule 5 Draft
There are 38 players on the Astros' 40-man roster, so there's space if the team wants to take a shot at a player in the Rule 5 Draft. Considering the depth of the roster, it would seem hard to fathom that they'd be able to carry a Rule 5 selection on their big league roster all season.
Big contracts they might unload
None, really. The Astros plan to keep their team intact for 2018 and make a run at another World Series championship.
Astros owner Jim Crane has said repeatedly the club will spend money when it counts, and he's opened the wallet the past two years with the signings of Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Beltran and Reddick and the trades for Brian McCann and Verlander. The payroll figures to be in the $150 million range, which is still in the middle of the pack, but they'll have some big free-agent decisions to make after next season with Keuchel and Gonzalez.