HOUSTON -- One year ago, a newly anointed general manager was handed the reigns of the Astros, with instructions from ownership to put together a competitive team on the big league level while rebuilding the farm system. Considering the 2007 Houston team lost 89 games and the organization as a whole was ranked 30th of 30 teams by Baseball America, Ed Wade knew he had work to do.
Wade overturned the roster practically from top to bottom while leaving the small nucleus of talent intact. He began maneuvering the roster days after the end of the World Series, and by the time Spring Training started, half of the more than 50 participants were brand new to the organization.
Wade again will look to improve the club, but it's likely he'll exercise more restraint than a year ago. This time around, the Astros need a few tweaks more than a major face lift. A starting pitcher or two (or three). A front-line catcher. Perhaps a fresh arm in the bullpen. Although, if this current group returned in '09, the relief corps would be in fine shape.
Houston enjoyed a 13 1/2-game turnaround, making this season, on some levels, a success. But Wade views success in only one way: "winning a World Series and having a parade somewhere in Houston." That has yet to happen in the club's 47-year history, and it's up to Wade to try to work that into the mix in '09.
"I think the progress we've made this year and the overall structure of the club we've had on the field for the lion's share of the season has been rewarding and gratifying in its own way," Wade said. "From a talent standpoint, we have work to do. We know that. Even the team that ultimately does have a parade will have work to do. That's the nature of our game."
Wade will explore the trade and free-agent markets for ways to improve the Astros, but he'll also have to make judgment calls on some of his own players, including pitchers Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez, who dealt with varying degrees of injury and ineffectiveness throughout the season. They also had their bright moments, which helps muddy the big picture.
During recent meetings with his coaching staff and top advisors, Wade listened to various observations about these two pitchers, along with just about everyone else on the roster. Some opinions were definitive, others less so.
"We talked about those guys that have some incomplete grades," Wade said. "The problem is, there really is no summer school. We have to make our decisions based on what our observations have been in a freeze frame of one season, and then also from a career standpoint or a recent career standpoint.
"That's one of the challenges. Who is the real guy? Sometimes you're also saying that when you're talking about players that haven't had injuries over the course of the season, because you see the ups and downs."
Wade acknowledged the club will have "payroll flexibility," as has been the case for several offseasons. The Astros' payroll was somewhere between $88-92 million, and there are no indications owner Drayton McLane is going to slash the budget for '09.
Starting pitching is the No. 1 priority. Wade is fully prepared to aggressively pursue Randy Wolf, who won't come cheap. It was Wolf's desire to table contract negotiations until after the season, but rest assured, now that the offseason is here, Wade is ready to pounce.
Ben Sheets is another talked-about potential free agent, and it's likely the Astros are interested. But given Sheets' injury history, the club will proceed with caution. Don't expect any outlandish offers made that could come back to haunt the home team.
Houston hopes outfielder Michael Bourn makes progress in winter ball, and it's likely he'll get another chance next season. The catching position is something to keep an eye on. While the Astros are encouraged by the progress Humberto Quintero made this year, they'll look to protect themselves with a steady hand behind the plate.
"We also hope J.R. [Towles] goes to winter ball, and gets more experience and gets more at-bats under his belt, and comes in and takes command during Spring Training," Wade said. "This offseason, we have to at least be paying attention to the catching market in the event things don't work out at the beginning of Spring Training. We're at a point now where people have to come in and win jobs."
Free agents: Randy Wolf, LHP; LaTroy Hawkins, RHP; Mark Loretta, INF; Brad Ausmus, C.
Eligible for arbitration: Jose Valverde, RHP; Ty Wigginton, 3B; Geoff Geary, RHP; Backe, RHP; Dave Borkowski, RHP; Tim Byrdak, LHP; Jose Castillo, INF; David Newhan, INF; Rodriguez, LHP; Humberto Quintero, C (likely Super Two).
Player options: None.
Club options: Doug Brocail, RHP, $3.25 million (already declined); Geoff Blum, INF, $1.25 million (already vested).
Non-tender possibilities: Brandon Backe, RHP; Jose Castillo, INF.
Humberto Quintero, .226, 2 HR, 12 RBIs
J.R. Towles, .137, 4 HR, 16 RBIs
The Astros like the progress Quintero made this season, but they're still not sold on him as a frontline catcher. They'll be on the lookout for catchers available via free agent or trades this winter. Towles is going to have to earn his way onto the Opening Day roster next time around.
Lance Berkman, .312, 29 HR, 106 RBIs
First base is locked down for as long as the Puma is under contract (through 2010).
Kazuo Matsui, .293, 26 2B, 20 SB
David Newhan, .260, 5 2B, 12 RBIs
Matsui's health issues will necessitate two, and maybe three, players to absorb the 162-game load at second base. That makes players such as Newhan, Geoff Blum and possibly Mark Loretta all the more valuable to this team.
Miguel Tejada, .283, 13 HR, 66 RBIs
Tejada is signed through 2010, and while his power numbers are down and he's two years older than originally believed when they traded for him, the Astros are happy with Tejada's presence on the field and in the clubhouse.
Ty Wigginton, .285, 23 HR, 58 RBIs
Geoff Blum, .240, 14 HR, 53 RBIs
Mark Saccomanno, .297, 27 HR, 33 2B, 84 RBIs (Triple-A)
The position is Wigginton's, but Blum will get his share of starts as a left-handed option. Blum also can back up Matsui at second and Tejada at shortstop.
Carlos Lee, .314, 28 HR, 100 RBIs
Michael Bourn, .229, .288 OBP, 41 SB
Hunter Pence, .269, 25 HR, 83 RBIs
Darin Erstad, .276, 16 2B, 4 HR, 31 RBIs
Reggie Abercrombie, .309, 2 HR, 5 RBIs
Bourn will play winter ball, during which the Astros hope he works on bunting, making contact and striking out less. Bourn probably will get another shot to be a full-time starter, since the club has Erstad to fall back on. Lee is expected to return fully recovered from a broken finger.
Roy Oswalt, 17-10, 3.54 ERA, 165 Ks
Randy Wolf, 12-12, 4.30 ERA, 162 Ks
Wandy Rodriguez, 9-7, 3.54 ERA, 131 Ks
Brandon Backe, 9-14, 6.05 ERA
Brian Moehler, 11-8, 4.56 ERA
This definitely is the area of greatest concern. The Astros hope Wolf will re-up and move into a top spot in the rotation. They could use one more veteran arm, to offset any future health issues with Rodriguez and Backe.
Chris Sampson, RHP, 6-4, 4.22 ERA
Doug Brocail, 7-5, 3.93 ERA, 64 Ks
Jose Valverde, 6-3, 3.38 ERA, 83 Ks, 44 SV
Geoff Geary, 2-3, 2.53 ERA, 45 Ks
Tim Byrdak, 2-1, 3.90 ERA
Wesley Wright, 4-3, 5.01 ERA
Fernando Nieve, 2-5, 5.72 ERA (Triple-A)
Dave Borkowski, 0-2, 7.50 ERA
Wade may decide to tweak the 'pen, but if he decides to stick with the same cast of characters from '08, it's likely the team would be in good shape.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.