LAS VEGAS -- Some scoffed when the Astros signed injury-prone pitcher Charlie Morton to a two-year, $14 million deal prior to the 2017 season. Morton re-invented himself in Houston, won a World Series title and parlayed two terrific seasons into a two-year, $30 million deal with the Rays on Wednesday.
Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow said on Wednesday at the Winter Meetings that they wanted Morton back in Houston, though it's unknown if the club made him an offer. The Astros remain in pursuit of a starting pitcher to replace Morton, injured right-hander Lance McCullers and lefty Dallas Keuchel, who's also a free agent.
"We wanted him back, and he will always be part of Astros history," Luhnow said. "He had two of his best years here, and if he gets a deal, he's happy with, I'm happy for him."
Morton certainly left his mark with Houston, going 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in two seasons with the Astros, who refined his pitch usage and made some mechanical tweaks. He won Game 7 of 2017 the American League Championship Series and the World Series.
The Astros have turned around a few pitchers' careers in the previous couple of years thanks to analytics and pitching coach Brent Strom, and that's become a selling point to free-agent pitchers. Collin McHugh, Will Harris and Gerrit Cole are among the pitchers who have flourished after arriving in Houston.
"We say, 'We'll work with you to make you reach your potential more easily,' and I think that's what we're able to do," Luhnow said. "It's a lot of different components of our organization, but we're really good at helping our players be their best, and helping push them in the right direction. And it's a lot of credit to our coaching staff, a lot of credit to our front office and everybody else -- our scouts.
"It has become a selling point and players recognize it, and they feel they will get the best information if they sign with the Astros. What they do with it is up to them, but they'll have a chance to figure out ways to make themselves even better."
Luhnow wrapped up three days of meetings with agents and teams on Wednesday at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and he said the club had moved the ball forward on a couple of possible deals and saw a couple of more fizzle.
"I think this seems like the lowest transaction volume I ever witnessed in my Winter Meetings history, but I think all it means is there's going to be more after the Winter Meetings," he said.
Luhnow said he doesn't know what's going to set the market in motion. The recent additions of infielder Aledmys Diaz from the Blue Jays and the signing of free-agent catcher Robinson Chirinos were made to fill big needs. He said any addition moves would come out of opportunity.
"We're not going to be the ones setting the market," he said. "We'll be reacting to it and making sure we get players we want for the value we want."
Two years ago, the Astros were aggressive early, signing Morton and outfielder Josh Reddick, and trading for catcher Brian McCann in November before signing designated hitter Carlos Beltran at the Winter Meetings. They signed relievers Hector Rondon and Joe Smith at the end of the Meetings last year prior to their biggest move -- January's trade with the Pirates for Cole.
The seeds for the Cole trade were planted weeks earlier at the Winter Meetings, though, with an in-person meeting. Luhnow said the Astros have met with "a bunch of clubs" and a "bunch of agents," but he added there's not a "forcing mechanism" to finish any deals.
The Astros remain in pursuit of a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, an outfielder/designated hitter and perhaps even a catcher as Luhnow prepares to leave Las Vegas on Thursday morning.
"Fans need to have that perspective that it does feel like things are happening later and later in the offseason, and that's OK," he said. "It doesn't mean your team's not going to do anything. It might, but it doesn't necessarily mean that."
The Astros' last order of business at the Winter Meetings will be Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. The club has a couple of open spots on the 40-man roster, but the 25-man roster is so deep it would be hard for Houston to add a player from the Rule 5 Draft.