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Astros poised to be bigger players at Winter Meetings

SAN DIEGO -- This year's Winter Meetings have taken on a different tone than the previous two years for Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, whose pitch to lure free agents to Houston is partially convincing them the club is being built to win in the near term rather than focusing on the future.

Luhnow, hired at the end of the Winter Meetings three years ago, has restocked the farm system through trades and was encouraged that the Astros improved by 19 wins last season. Now, they're hoping to add to the bullpen and beef up the lineup so they can be even more competitive in 2015 under new manager A.J. Hinch.

Winter Meetings: Monday through Thursday in San Diego"We have to be pretty compelling about what our value proposition is for these players, and part of any player's desire is to be on a winning club," Luhnow said. "We haven't had a winning club in a while, and we're hoping to this year."

With that in mind, Luhnow was busy Monday meeting with agents and talking with other general managers, but no deals appeared close by the evening. The Astros came up short in their bid for free-agent reliever Andrew Miller, who signed with the Yankees last week, but they are still in pursuit of some of the top relief pitchers on the market, such as David Robertson, Sergio Romo and Luke Gregerson.

"We feel like we're further along today than we were yesterday when we got here," Luhnow said. "There's still a long way to go, though, and there's a lot of avenues we can take, so we're exploring multiple avenues simultaneously, which is the right thing to do, both involving the trade market as well as free agency.

"Still very much focused on pitching, pitching depth. Especially in the bullpen, I feel like there are some good alternatives out there, both through trade, potentially, and through free agency. And [we are] also trying to figure out how improve our lineup as well. I don't know if we're going to have anything else done this week, but we certainly will push things as far as we can, and it would be nice to get one or two deals done this week."

Luhnow still categorized relief pitching as the team's top priority, followed by adding some offense and then starting pitching. Multiple sources told on Monday the Astros had pursued free agent Jed Lowrie, a former Astros infielder who could play shortstop and third base -- both of which are needs.

Lowrie, 30, would fill the Astros' need for an everyday shortstop while they await the arrival of top prospect Carlos Correa, but Lowrie has appeared in only 83 games at third base during his career, which began with Boston. After a strong season with the A's in 2013, when he hit .290 with 15 homers and 75 RBIs, Lowrie batted .249 with six homers and 50 RBIs in '14.

The Astros have also been linked to free-agent third baseman Chase Headley.

Video: A.J. Hinch on the Astros' use of advanced analytics

Last year, the Astros signed relievers Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain and Matt Albers, all of whom had ties to Houston, and gave a whopping $30 million over three years to starting pitching Scott Feldman. Luhnow is hoping free agents can see the Astros are headed in right direction, giving him more options in free agency.

"Most people believe, [after] the gains we made last year, we're going to continue to make gains and we're definitely on a trajectory that's positive, and whether or not that leads to contention this year or next year, it's coming," Luhnow said. "They feel that, and when you're talking to free agents, a lot them are multiyear deals, so they're concerned about the future and not necessarily just what's happening in 2015.

"I think both clubs and free agents are getting the sense that we are about getting better now and not about building for 2017 or 2018. That's a different feel from what they've had in the past."

Luhnow said, for example, the team was focused solely on the future two years ago when it traded relief pitcher Wilton Lopez for young starter Alex White, who was on the rise before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Times have changed.

"Not to say we wouldn't try to improve the future if we could at the same time, but clearly our trade partners or possible trade partners and free agent players that we target, they get the sense that we're very much interested in improving this club as quickly as possible," he said.

Video: McTaggart discusses Astros looking for bullpen help

Starting pitching isn't as big of a need for the Astros, but they're still looking to explore options. The free-agent market for starting pitchers might not break until Jon Lester signs with his next club, and Luhnow said he expects starting pitching to be available into January.

"Again, when we think about our priorities, we'd like to add another starting pitcher, but it's probably a third priority behind bolstering the bullpen and improving the lineup," he said. "Now, we don't have to do everything via free agency. So if we do trades we could maybe solve one of those problems that way and have resources to sign a free agent, a starting pitcher, for example."

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