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Astros have better feel for options after GM Meetings

MLB.com @brianmctaggart

HOUSTON -- Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, scheduled to return home Thursday from the General Managers Meetings in Phoenix, said he's pleased with the groundwork that was laid to improve the club through free agency and the trade market.

The Astros, who last week traded for Angels backup catcher Hank Conger, are still in the market for relief pitching, a starting pitcher and some offensive punch, which would likely come from the corner-infield spots, where the club struggled mightily last season.

HOUSTON -- Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, scheduled to return home Thursday from the General Managers Meetings in Phoenix, said he's pleased with the groundwork that was laid to improve the club through free agency and the trade market.

The Astros, who last week traded for Angels backup catcher Hank Conger, are still in the market for relief pitching, a starting pitcher and some offensive punch, which would likely come from the corner-infield spots, where the club struggled mightily last season.

Luhnow said the Astros talked with several clubs and free agents while he was in the desert to set the stage for the Winter Meetings, to be held Dec. 7-11 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. The Astros, of course, could make a move prior to arriving in San Diego.

"We feel pretty good about knowing what the opportunities might be had and for all areas we think we can improve," Luhnow said. "We've got to compare the cost of free agency to the cost of doing a trade to the cost of doing nothing. I think we have a pretty good feel for where things might head. We have to regroup and start working on the areas that are mostly like to be productive."

The bullpen remains the top priority, and the Astros are pursuing some of the biggest names on the market whether through free agency and trade. Among the relievers on the Astros' wish list are free agents Andrew Miller, David Robertson and Sergio Romo.

The Astros signed relievers Jerome Williams, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain a year ago, but injuries derailed Albers and Crain, and Williams was let go midseason. They also signed Chad Qualls, who did a solid job at closer but is probably better suited for a setup role.

The Astros have blown 54 saves the past two seasons, which is five more than any other team in that span.

Luhnow said any deal would mean trading from an area of strength to bolster an area of weakness, which is something the Astros have to weigh. They have some young starting-pitching depth, and that's why they sent right-hander Nick Tropeano to the Angels in the Conger deal.

"Generally speaking, we want to improve the bullpen and potentially add another starter and improve our offensive lineup, which probably means in the infield somewhere," Luhnow said.

One high-profile infielder the Astros have been linked to is free agent Hanley Ramirez, but it's not going to happen. Ramirez rejected the Dodgers' one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer, which means the Astros would lose a Draft pick if they sign him.

Houston has the No. 2 and No. 5 overall picks in next year's First-Year Player Draft, but they're protected, so the pick they'd lose for signing a player who turned down a qualifying offer is their third pick (the competitive-round pick they received from the Marlins in last season's Jarred Cosart trade). Luhnow says that's advantageous to the Astros, but Ramirez will be too expensive.

Still, Luhnow hinted that the Astros won't shy away from players who turned down qualifying offers.

"We've talked to a couple of player agents that represent players with qualifying offers," he said. "It's nothing we're going to shy away from this year. The fit would have to be right in all the other areas, but the loss of the compensation pick is not something that will hold us back from improving the team in the short term."

The Astros' payroll, which finished around $50 million last season, is expected to rise by about $20 million. MLBTradeRumors.com estimates the team's 2015 payroll commitments will be $48.4 million, including re-signing their nine arbitration-eligible players, though a couple of those could be non-tenders.

"We have a lot of players going into arbitration, and we're going to evaluate all of those and ask, 'Should we do a one-year [deal]? Should we do multi-year?'" Luhnow said. "Then obviously a lot of the free agents are going to require multi-year deals to get done. Now that the TV deal is a little more in focus and we're more certain about it, we're more comfortable expanding out the years. It's going to have be the right type of player and the right fit and the right cost for us."

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

Houston Astros