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Pitching on Astros' minds at Winter Meetings

Club upgrades offense, defense with Fowler, seeks arms for bullpen

HOUSTON -- For a team coming off three consecutive 100-plus-loss seasons, including a club-record 111 in 2013, the Astros aren't going to the Winter Meetings with a huge shopping list.

The Astros already made a couple of moves this week by trading for Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler, who should occupy the leadoff spot in the lineup, and signing veteran starter Scott Feldman. Their top priority while in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., beginning Monday will be adding some relief pitching and perhaps another bat.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow is in the market to try to find a closer and a setup man to bolster a bullpen that struggled to close games with youth leading the way. Luhnow said earlier this week he hoped to have another deal or two in place by the end of the Winter Meetings, so stay tuned.

Here is a quick glance at the Astros' situation heading into the Winter Meetings, which return this year to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort:

Club needs
Bullpen: The Astros' bullpen wasn't one of their strengths last season, and when they traded closer Jose Veras in July, things only got worse. Houston went with a bullpen dominated by rookies and paid for it. It wound up with a 4.90 ERA that was the worst in baseball and a league-high 29 blown saves, including 10 in the month of July following the Veras trade. Adding a veteran arm or two is a must.

Offense: Even after trading for Fowler on Tuesday, the Astros could still add another bat to hit in the middle of the lineup. They're not going to approach anything close to Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury money, but they could use some more pop and could perhaps sign a middle-tier first baseman.

Who they can trade if necessary
1B/DH Brett Wallace: Wallace has spent four up-and-down seasons in an Astros uniform since he was traded from the Blue Jays in an offshoot deal of the Roy Oswalt trade to the Phillies in 2010. It's the longest he's spent with any organization in his career. After getting off to a woeful start (1-for-24, 17 strikeouts) and being sent to the Minors last season, Wallace came back and hit .239 with 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 72 games.

With prospect Jonathan Singleton competing for a spot at first base in Spring Training and strikeout-prone slugger Chris Carter once again in the mix at first and designated hitter, the Astros could part with Wallace if they found the right deal.

RHP Lucas Harrell: The 2013 season was largely one to forget for Harrell, who went 6-17 with a 5.85 ERA in 22 games between the rotation and the bullpen. It was a dramatic fall for Harrell, who in 2012 was the Astros' best starting pitcher (11-11, 3.76 ERA). He has value as a ground-ball pitcher and some teams inquired about him last July. A change of scenery could work wonders for Harrell, who complained publicly last season about the team's frequent defensive shifts.

Top prospects
The Astros' top 10 prospects, per, are shortstop Carlos Correa, first baseman Jonathan Singleton, center fielder George Springer, right-hander Mark Appel, right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, center fielder Delino DeShields Jr., infielder Nolan Fontana, right fielder Domingo Santana and right-hander Vincent Velasquez.

Houston, which will have the top pick in the First-Year Player Draft once again next year, has built a nice stable of right-handed starters, led by Appel, who was taken first overall this year. The hard-throwing Foltynewicz could be in Houston soon. Springer and Singleton both should push for time in the Major Leagues this year. Correa's career is off to a nice start, but he's still a couple of years away from Houston.

Rule 5 Draft
Luhnow said the team will likely make a selection with the first pick in Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. They've acquired four players in the Rule 5 Draft in the last two years, and three of them have stuck, though yet to pay any big dividends -- infielder Marwin Gonzalez and right-handers Rhiner Cruz and Josh Fields. The Astros' Minor League system is deep enough now the club could lose some players in the Rule 5 Draft, with right-hander Jake Buchanan among those left exposed.

Big contracts they might unload
The Astros don't really have any big contracts. Their highest-paid players are the recently acquired Fowler, who is set to make $7.35 million next year, and Feldman, who reportedly signed a three-year, $30 million deal. Second baseman Jose Altuve will make $1.4375 million next year, and All-Star catcher Jason Castro will top $2 million in arbitration if he doesn't sign an extension first.

Payroll summary
The Astros' payroll is on the way up. After years of dealing away high-priced veterans in exchange for prospects to help stock the farm system, the Astros understand it's time to start winning more games. Owner Jim Crane said in October the Astros, who finished last season with a payroll of around $13 million, could see a payroll of about $50 million to $60 million next year.

The signings of Fowler and Feldman will account for a combined $17 million in payroll next season, which is more than the team's overall payroll was at the end of last season. With more spots still on the shopping list, the payroll figures to go higher.

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

Houston Astros