SAN DIEGO — The Astros landed their top free agent target — first baseman José Abreu — prior to coming to the Winter Meetings, and they were hoping to sign free-agent catcher Willson Contreras, who reportedly wound up going to the Cardinals on a five-year deal Wednesday.
The Astros remained aggressive despite being the only team at the Winter Meetings without a general manager, as assistant GMs Bill Firkus, Charles Cook and Andrew Ball spearheaded the team’s contingent in San Diego while owner Jim Crane and advisor Jeff Bagwell stayed in touch while back in Houston.
As the Winter Meetings end, there’s still work to be done. The defending World Series champions have a stacked roster, but there are a few holes that will have to be addressed. And then there’s the general manager search, which Crane has said will likely not be done until after the start of the new calendar year.
BIGGEST REMAINING NEEDS
1. Left field: The Astros still are interested in bringing back free-agent Michael Brantley for a fifth season in Houston, but it’s going to depend on his health. Brantley, 35, just started to do baseball drills after undergoing an arthroscopic labral repair on his right shoulder in August. The Astros have also shown interest in free agents Michael Conforto and Andrew Benintendi, a pair of left-handed bats who could balance out Houston’s predominantly right-handed lineup. Yordan Alvarez will get playing time in left field but will get most of his at-bats at DH.
2. Catcher: The club’s pursuit of Contreras showed how serious the Astros are at improving their catching situation. Martín Maldonado, the incumbent starter, is returning for another season, while Christian Vázquez is a free agent. Maldonado struggled at the plate last season but is a trusted leader to a young pitching staff. Catching prospects Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz might have to start in Triple-A if the Astros can land another backstop. Keep an eye on Oakland catcher Sean Murphy, who could be had in a trade, though the asking price will be high.
3. Left-handed reliever: Manager Dusty Baker’s desire for a left-handed reliever led the Astros to acquire Will Smith from Atlanta at the Trade Deadline, but he wasn’t used in the playoffs and is a free agent. The Astros have a tremendous bullpen with right-handers who can get left-handers out. Still, Baker wants a lefty or two in the mix to compete with Blake Taylor and Parker Mushinski in the bullpen.
RULE 5 DRAFT
The Astros did not select or lose any players in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft, though they did make four selections in the Minor League phase.
ASSISTANT GM’S BOTTOM LINE
Crane said the Astros weren’t done making moves during Abreu’s press conference Nov. 29 and said he would be willing to go over the Competitive Balance Tax threshold to fill remaining needs. Firkus’ comments in San Diego echoed those sentiments.
“We’ve checked in with every single team in the last week and picked up those discussions here,” he said. “As you can imagine, there’s a lot of discussions and transactions happening here. So yeah, we’re going to continue to run down everything we can to try to get back and go back-to-back next year. We’re going to do everything we can to improve this club: free agency, trades, waiver claims … wherever we think we can improve this club.”