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Luhnow says active Astros still exploring options

HOUSTON -- As relief pitchers fly off the free-agent market at a frenzied pace, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow didn't rule out Tuesday the possibility of adding another arm to the bullpen following the recent signing of former Astros right-handers Chad Qualls and Matt Albers.

One pitcher that won't be returning to Houston, however, is reliever Jose Veras, who told on Tuesday he had agreed to sign with the Cubs, pending a physical to be performed Wednesday. Veras turned down a contract offer from Houston, where he pitched the first half of last year.

"They said they didn't have enough money to get the contract done we asked for," Veras said.

The deals with Qualls and Albers -- both of whom were drafted and developed by the Astros in the mid 2000s -- still don't fill the Astros' need for an experienced closer, though Luhnow said Tuesday both Qualls and Albers, as well as Josh Fields, could close if needed.

"We're still talking to other relievers," Luhnow said. "Again, the closer role is really going to be determined during Spring Training, and from the standpoint of Fields, Qualls and Albers, they all have the arm strength and pitches to pitch in the ninth inning. We'll just kind of see what develops. We're not necessarily done on pitching. We're still talking to some pitchers, and we'll see what happens."

By trading for center fielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies and signing starting pitcher Scott Feldman and relievers Qualls and Albers, the Astros have added about $24 million in payroll for next season, which would be a substantial bump in their season-ending payroll. They will pay Jose Altuve $1.4375 million next year (according to Cot's Baseball Contracts) and should top $2 million for All-Star catcher Jason Castro, who's arbitration-eligible.

Still, Luhnow said the team would still like to add another pitcher and another bat.

"We're going to be opportunistic from here on in," he said. "We're still having lots of conversations with pitchers and hitters, and also clubs. I can't say that anything is necessarily going to happen in the near term, but we're going to take advantage if we see we can improve the 2014 Astros."

There has emerged a theme among the Astros' three major free-agent signings. In addition to being strike-throwers who have high ground-ball ratios, Feldman, Qualls and Albers all have Houston ties. Feldman's wife is from the Houston area; Qualls met his wife in Houston while playing with the Astros and lives in Austin; and Albers is a Houston native.

Luhnow said the hometown ties were important in cementing their desire to come to Houston and play for the Astros. That being said, Houston resident Jesse Crain, a free-agent reliever, remains on the market and has drawn interest from the Astros.

"We didn't have a great record last year, so sometimes we sell a little harder than other clubs do in trying to attract free agents," Luhnow said. "These guys are comfortable in Texas and they all believe our strategy is going to work and they want to be a part of it. Them being here increased their comfort level in signing with a team that didn't have a winning record last year."

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

Houston Astros