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12/23/09 1:00 PM EST

Inbox: Another arm on the way?

Beat reporter Brian McTaggart answers fans' questions

What a December.

The Astros got all their Christmas shopping done in a tidy few days at the Winter Meetings and appear set for 2010.

Houston said goodbye to veterans Jose Valverde, Miguel Tejada, Doug Brocail and LaTroy Hawkins and hello to Matt Lindstrom, Brandon Lyon and Pedro Feliz. OK, some of you may want to put a lump of coal in general manager Ed Wade's stocking, and that's OK. These moves were financially driven, but they could wind up paying dividends.

The Astros got a little bit younger, and if you saw the long line of guys waiting to get in the trainer's office last season, that's a good thing. Just think, you still have the speed of Michael Bourn, the passion of Hunter Pence and the determination of Roy Oswalt to look forward to for next season.

And what fun would it be if the Astros went into the season with no question marks? Well, that might be fun, but all this uncertainty sure gives me more to write about.

Now, onto the Inbox:

I think the Astros are on the edge of being a good ballclub. Is there any chance they will try to add an above-average starter? Do you think with one more good starter and an average third baseman, the Astros can compete for the playoffs?
-- Colton E., Freeport, Texas

I do think the Astros are one good starting pitcher away from contending for the playoffs, but it doesn't appear as if it will happen. Houston's major offseason acquisitions appear to be done, and the club didn't want to pony up money for another starter. The team's priorities were bullpen and third base, and it added relievers Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon and signed third baseman Pedro Feliz.

If you look at history, giving starting pitchers a lot of money in free agency has more often than not been a mistake. That being said, most of the big-name free agents on the market and the kinds of pitchers that Astros fans want to see are going to be too rich for Houston's blood.

Owner Drayton McLane keeps insisting on reducing the Astros' payroll. He has to realize that if the team does not win, the seats at Minute Maid will continue to grow vacant. Why doesn't McLane realize that if he doesn't spend the money, he won't make the money?
-- John J., Houston

Well, McLane hasn't made more than a billion dollars because he doesn't know what he's doing. I understand where you're coming from, but I'm not sure what you mean by "keeps" reducing payroll. The Astros had a record $107 million payroll in 2008 and are indeed cutting it to close to $95 million this year. It had gone up for a while.

I think the biggest problem with the payroll is some of the money that is already committed. Carlos Lee's six-year, $100 million contract will hinder the club going forward, and Kazuo Matsui hasn't proven to be worth what he is being paid. You can win with a $95 million payroll. It just has to be spent wisely.

The Astros need to get younger, and they are in transition, no question; yet they also are in a division that will have a lot of teams bunched in a competitive, unpredictable jumble. Remember, the Cubs were the prohibitive favorites last year, and look what happened to them. The Astros have a good number of prospects who are about two years away, and they have Pence and Bourn, who figure to be in the key contributors in the mix for the long haul. If the club could tweak some things and free up payroll for another legitimate starting pitcher in the interim, everybody would be more confident and comfortable with the near term.

But let's see how these guys respond to new leadership in Brad Mills, and don't rule out the possibility that Ed Wade really is applying a thoughtful blueprint like the Phillies followed to become what they are. Teams that spend when they should spend are the ones that establish staying power.

Who is most likely going to be at Triple-A Round Rock as the starters with J.R. Towles, Tommy Manzella, Wesley Wright, Bud Norris, Yorman Bazardo, Chris Sampson, and Chris Johnson being possible MLB players next year?
-- Shaun, H., Pflugerville, Texas

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At this point it appears Johnson will likely begin the season at Round Rock and start at third base. You'll probably see Drew Locke, Brian Bogusevic and Yordany Ramirez in the outfield and Jason Castro at catcher if he doesn't make the big club. Also keep an eye on outfielder Collin DeLome and infielder Drew Meyer. Among the pitchers who could be in Round Rock: Fernando Abad, Chia-Jen Lo and Polin Trinidad.

Is there any chance the Astros would sign Ben Sheets at a discount price? I know he missed a year because of injury, but he has great stuff.
-- Manuel V., Houston

Two things work against this happening. First, the Astros are wary about signing starting pitchers with a history of injury problems after Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz didn't work out last year. And Sheets has a long history of medical trouble.

Second, Sheets isn't going to come at a discount price. When he's healthy, he's a very capable starting pitcher who can be dominant, and he's going to demand that kind of money. Would I love to see Sheets pitching for the Astros? You bet. Is it going to happen? No.

Guess you're now the Inbox guru. I'll miss Alyson Footer's. Will Lance Berkman leave after his contract ends? I would hate to see him go, because he's meant so much to the city of Houston, but honestly, if he wants a World Series title, it won't happen in Houston for at least another three years.
-- James B., Overland Park, Kan.

Berkman is entering the final year of a six-year, $85 million contract he signed during the spring of 2005. He has an option to return for 2011 and will likely take it, considering his ties to Houston and his love for the area. The older he gets, I think the less likely he is to play elsewhere. But Berkman wants to win, and management realizes that. That's why the Astros are reluctant to trade away veteran players and start over. They want to try to add pieces that will help Berkman and Oswalt get back to the World Series.

And as far as missing Alyson Footer's Inbox, it's completely justified. She did a great job covering the team, but you can still gain her insight by following her blog.

Will there ever come a day when MLB will have a salary cap and make it more about the game than which team can afford the best players? This Yankees, Red Sox, Los Angeles stuff has really made the game rather dull. Same teams, same situations.
-- James S., Minneapolis

Unfortunately, James, I don't see a salary cap coming anytime soon. The big market clubs won't go for it, and those teams are paying huge money to players, so why would the players go for it? If you live in Minnesota, Pittsburgh or Florida, a salary cap certainly would be welcomed.

But keep this in mind. Since 2002, Major League Baseball has had seven different teams win the World Series, including small-market Florida in 2003. The Tampa Bay Rays made the World Series in 2008, proving what good scouting and development can do. But I am sensitive to your point. The teams with the most money have the best chance to win.

This past season, I was able to visit a few stadiums throughout baseball: Angel Stadium, Coors Field, Busch Stadium, Rangers Ballpark and Turner Field. However, Minute Maid Park is the only park that I know of which chooses to advertise on the foul poles. What gives? Personally, I think it's embarrassing and takes away from the game.
-- Steve M., Houston

I couldn't agree more. I don't like seeing advertising on the foul poles, but as you can probably guess, it's driven by money. If fans want to see the team spend money, then they need to allow the team to generate money in any way they can. I'm sure the company advertising on the foul pole paid a large sum to the Astros to get its name up there. And hey, it worked for them. You noticed the advertisement, didn't you?

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.