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System-rich Astros have options at Meetings

After landing Fowler, GM Luhnow sees gathering as perfect time to round out roster

HOUSTON -- The Astros haven't made any big news at the Winter Meetings since 2011, when the club announced the hiring of general manager Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals just prior to the close of baseball's annual swap meet that year in Dallas.

Luhnow's been on the job almost two years now, has reworked the front office and nearly completely revamped the roster in that time, making numerous deals to get younger and infuse the Minor League system with more talent. It was all done with the goal of competing at the Major League level in the next couple of years and being built to last.

Now that the Astros have identified a few of their players they feel could be cornerstones moving forward and the Minor League system is considered one of the best in baseball, Luhnow and his top officials will hit the Winter Meetings beginning Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., looking to fill some holes for 2014.

Houston took a step toward that goal Tuesday, when it acquired outfielder Dexter Fowler and a player to be named from the Rockies in exchange for outfielder Brandon Barnes and pitcher Jordan Lyles. The Astros are still seeking a veteran starting pitcher and bullpen help.

The Winter Meetings will be held next week at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort, which is just down the road from the Astros' Spring Training home in Kissimmee.

"We'd like to bring in a couple of players, but we don't want to dig too far into our farm system to acquire players through trades," Luhnow said. "We'd like to keep the core of what we have."

The Astros hadn't made much noise this offseason prior to the trade with the Rockies. The two teams made a trade during last year's Winter Meetings, with Houston acquiring pitcher Alex White and a prospect in exchange for pitcher Wilton Lopez and a prospect.

"Despite the lack of transactions, we've been extremely active in pursuing both relievers and starters," Luhnow said. "We just haven't found our match yet. We're going to continue to work hard on it, and I'm confident we'll have another deal or two done by this time next week."

By taking on Fowler's $7.35 million contract for 2014, the Astros are making good on their commitment to spending some money this winter. After ending the season with a payroll somewhere south of $15 million, Astros owner Jim Crane said in October the payroll could increase to between $50-60 million for '14, giving Luhnow some flexibility.

"We feel good about having the resources to address the needs that we have and our strategy has not changed one bit," Luhnow said. "We want to complement the young players we have and bring in some experienced guys around them and win a lot more games next year."

The Astros, of course, lost a club-record 111 games last season, including a franchise-record 15 in a row to end the season. Much of their second-half struggles were the product of a young bullpen that couldn't close out games following the trade of veteran reliever Jose Veras in July.

Veras performed well in his first try as a closer and was a clubhouse leader. He also enjoyed his time in Houston, which means he could return next season. The Astros ranked last in the Majors with a 4.90 bullpen ERA, and their 29 blown saves tied for the most in the Majors with Arizona.

"I have said before we had a good experience with him and we'd be open to have him on the club again," Luhnow said.

The Winter Meetings conclude with the Rule 5 Draft, in which the Astros will have the top pick once again. Luhnow expects Houston to pluck a player away from another team with the first pick like the club did last year with reliever Josh Fields, who was taken from the Red Sox. He appeared in 41 games last season and was 1-3 with five saves and a 4.97 ERA, striking out 40 batters in 38 innings.

Houston also drafted 6-foot-7 first baseman Nate Freiman with the first pick of the second round, and he was claimed off waivers by Oakland in March after it became apparent he wouldn't crack the Astros' first-base/designated-hitter rotation.

"Having the first pick, it's an opportunity," Luhnow said. "I'll expect we'll take advantage of the opportunity, whether we trade that pick or make a selection ourselves. Three out of our last four picks have stuck all year, and the fourth one stuck with Oakland all year.

"We've had pretty good success identifying players that can play at this level, and I expect we'll have a lot of conversations leading up to the Rule 5 Draft as far as what players are out there. A preliminary look at the list, there are definitely some intriguing players out there, so we'll more than likely select somebody."

Clubs pay $50,000 to select a player in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. If that player doesn't stay on the 25-man roster for the full season, he must be offered back to his former team for $25,000.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros