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Strengthening bullpen is Astros' top priority

October 31, 2017

HOUSTON -- Coming off the first World Series title in club history, the Astros are set up nicely to contend for years to come with a young core that is under team control. That's bad news for the rest of the American League.• Dress like a champion! Get Astros World Series

HOUSTON -- Coming off the first World Series title in club history, the Astros are set up nicely to contend for years to come with a young core that is under team control. That's bad news for the rest of the American League.
• Dress like a champion! Get Astros World Series title gear
Free agents: Lefty Francisco Liriano; outfielder Cameron Maybin; righties Luke Gregerson and Tyler Clippard; designated hitter Carlos Beltran.
Arbitration-eligible players: Lefty Dallas Keuchel; catcher/designated hitter Evan Gattis; center fielder George Springer; righties Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Brad Peacock; outfielder Jake Marisnick.

Where is the biggest need for an upgrade?
Clearly, it's the bullpen. Starting pitching would have been a need before the team traded for Justin Verlander, who's under contract for two more years. With Verlander, Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton, McHugh and Peacock, the Astros have enough starting pitching. Houston is in dire need of an effective lefty reliever (Brad Hand, anyone?) and another late-inning arm, considering the struggles it had in the bullpen this year. Gregerson is gone, but Will Harris, Chris Devenski, Tony Sipp and Ken Giles will be back. They could use a couple more reliable bullpen arms.

Who will be the designated hitter next year?
Beltran won't be back, leaving a need for a DH to pair with Gattis, who figures to return. Perhaps the Astros will be in the market for another left-handed bat that can play first base, giving Hinch some versatility and flexibility. The Astros tried Gattis in left field two years ago before determining that catcher is his only position when he's not at DH. The Astros ranked last in the AL in OPS at designated hitter in 2017 (.665) and 12th in home runs with 19.
Which young player could impact the roster?
Derek Fisher, best known for scoring the game-winning run in Game 5 of the World Series, figures to play an important role in the outfield next year. The big names to watch are Astros top prospects Forrest Whitley, a pitcher, and Kyle Tucker, an outfielder. Both players performed well at Double-A Corpus Christi to end the season, setting themselves up for a spot in Major League Spring Training next year and a shot at the big league roster in the not-too-distant future.

Whitley, 19, dominated at three separate Minor League levels this year despite pitching the entire season at 19 years old, going 5-4 with a 2.83 ERA and 34 walks, 78 hits allowed and 143 strikeouts in 23 games (18 starts). Tucker, 20, batted .274 with 70 runs, 33 doubles, five triples, 25 homers, 90 RBIs, 21 steals and an .874 OPS in 120 combined games between Corpus Christi and Class A Advanced Buies Creek this season.

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