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'Right situation' could see Astros add payroll

MLB.com @brianmctaggart

LAS VEGAS -- In a city where money is thrown around indiscriminately, the Astros began baseball's annual Winter Meetings on Monday hoping to fill their needs by spending wisely this offseason, though their payroll could push closer to $200 million in 2019.

Despite having 10 players eligible for arbitration and due raises and four others -- Justin Verlander ($20 million), Josh Reddick ($13 million), Yuli Gurriel ($10.4 million) and George Springer ($12 million) -- set to earn more than $10 million annually, the Astros have enough flexibility to add payroll this winter in their pursuit of a starting pitcher and another bat.

LAS VEGAS -- In a city where money is thrown around indiscriminately, the Astros began baseball's annual Winter Meetings on Monday hoping to fill their needs by spending wisely this offseason, though their payroll could push closer to $200 million in 2019.

Despite having 10 players eligible for arbitration and due raises and four others -- Justin Verlander ($20 million), Josh Reddick ($13 million), Yuli Gurriel ($10.4 million) and George Springer ($12 million) -- set to earn more than $10 million annually, the Astros have enough flexibility to add payroll this winter in their pursuit of a starting pitcher and another bat.

The Astros, who fell short of defending their 2017 World Series title last season when they lost in the American League Championship Series to the eventual champion Red Sox, began last season with a club-record payroll of $182 million -- the fifth-highest in baseball, according to the Associated Press.

Astros owner Jim Crane told MLB.com on Monday via phone from California the payroll is set to rise again for '19 if president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow deems it necessary to fill his needs.

"We can flex it up if we need to and still be in good shape," he said.

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Like most clubs, the Astros have their limits. Crane said the club has no plans to raise its payroll higher than the luxury-tax threshold, which would come with severe financial penalties. The Red Sox and Nationals were the only teams subject last season to the Competitive Balance Tax after exceeding the payroll threshold of $197 million. That number will be $206 million next year.

"I'd say if the right situation came along -- certainly we're not going over [the luxury-tax threshold] -- but we could move closer to that," Crane said. "We were pretty high up in the food chain last year. A lot of teams realize the penalty is pretty severe if you go over. We'll stay within the strike zone."

Video: Astros seek answers to starting pitching needs

This is a big offseason for the Astros, considering their window to win a championship remains wide open. But Verlander and Cole can be free agents after next season, and Jose Altuve's massive five-year, $151 million contract extension kicks in in 2020 when he makes $29 million, which could present payroll flexibility challenges. Springer will be arbitration-eligible in '20 for the first time as well.

So far, the Astros have made a pair of under-the-radar additions in trading for infielder Aledmys Diaz and signing catcher Robinson Chirinos, but the team's biggest moves might not come until next month, Crane said. The Winter Meetings wrap up Thursday at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

"I think everything will open up once a couple of big pieces drop," Crane said. "I think it will be a similar market to last year. There will be a lot of decent players still around and hopefully they get it sorted out before Spring Training. Jeff's looking for value and to fill a couple of holes, and everybody knows where those are, and I think he'll get something done.

"He's had a lot of irons in the fire so far. He's cautious at making good deals and not giving up any of our young prospects. That's kind of where he's at. I know he'll pull something off here in the next month or so."

Any trades the Astros make will come at the expense of prospects, though Luhnow has said multiple times top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley isn't getting traded. Crane said the Astros are open to almost anything involving trading prospects.

"It just depends on what the deal is on the other side," he said. "I wouldn't say there's nobody that's not untouchable, but certainly [Luhnow] likes to keep some of his higher-end guys. He's got a lot in the system and the goal is to win another championship. If we see the right situation, we'll be aggressive. If we don't, then we won't make a bad deal."

Crane said Luhnow is always looking "three or four steps down the road" when it comes to contracts and roster construction. Pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton and infielder/outfielder Marwin Gonzalez -- all key members of the '17 championship team -- are currently free agents. Verlander and Cole are free agents after '19, Springer after '20 and shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. after '21.

The Astros will find it more and more challenging to keep their core together, but this winter represents a great opportunity to beef up the roster -- if the price is right.

"As you look at the team and the guys we have under control, they all kind of peel off at different times," Crane said. "[Luhnow is] constantly rebuilding the system and guys coming up and adding guys that might be in the market. I think that gives us a lot of flexibility. Our goal is to stay competitive, win the division and make a run. You do that year in and year out, you get more chances."

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

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