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Top Five: Astros Offseason Targets

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Are there any attractive free agents out there for the Houston Astros? Or will they look to the trade market?

Do you ever have that feeling that you're a "professional," that you've spent your "whole life in the game" and that you don't need some "egghead Internet geek telling you what to do from his mom's basement?"

No? You mean I'm the only one who's had that conversation with Ed Wade?

Sigh.

At any rate, I believe Wade needs my advice. This is a crucial time in the organization's planning for next year. As we speak, they could be in meetings at Minute Maid Park, deciding which players to go after, who do deal and how the 2011 team should look.

That's where I come in. This week's Top Five is a list of players the Astros should look long and hard at this winter. I'll tell you my reasons and why I didn't just put Cliff Lee or Carl Crawford at the top and call it a day. See, the Astros don't need Lee. Well, they do, but they don't need a 32-year old pitcher with a huge contract. They have more holes to fill than just that one. Hopefully, someone calls up this piece in Wade's war room and a revelation will occur. By next February, all these players could be Astros and we'll be headed into for another pennant. Mark my words.

1) Matt Kemp, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers

The center fielder won a Gold Glove last season and was 10th in the MVP voting. This season, he barely hit his way out of a paper bag, despite playing in all 162 games. Why would the Dodgers trade him when his value is at an all-time low? Well, he's disgruntled and he's due for more money.

That doesn't mean the Dodgers will move him, nor that the Astros would be willing to pick him up. I think Houston's interest will be contingent on two things: if they can trade Carlos Lee and if the Dodgers want Michael Bourn in the deal.

See, picking up Kemp and installing him in left field would be great. Despite the Gold Glove, his defense can be stretched at times in center. Pushing him over to left will make him a plus-defender there and will greatly increase the Astros outfield defensive prowess. But, that spot in left is only open if Lee gets moved in a separate deal. With Manny out the door, the Dodgers might want Lee back in the deal, but I doubt it. His dwindling power numbers would not play well in Chavez Ravine and he makes too much money for that unsettled ownership divorce situation.

No, Lee would have to be moved before Houston could pull this trade off. The deal with Bourn is also crucial, because having Kemp play center field every day in Houston would stretch his skills considerably. Whatever value his bat brings would be diminished by his defense. Could he play a passable center for Houston? Certainly. But, the dropoff from Bourn to Kemp would be very noticeable.

If Kemp is available, heading into his prime, the Astros should jump at the chance to get him. As long as they don't ask for Lyles, the Astros could part with at least two players from the system easily. As much as it pains me to say, I'd even put Chris Johnson in the deal. With the exception of 2010, Kemp has shown that he can be a force in the offense and that's exactly what Houston needs more of.

2) Jason Bartlett, SS, Tampa Bay Rays

For all the reasons Kemp would be a good fit on this Astros team, Bartlett would be too, except the exact opposite. Basically, Bartlett is a defense-first shortstop on a team (TB) that has two other good options at the position. He also didn't hit very well in his age 30 season, coming off his All-Star appearance last season and was injured for part of the time.

But, there is no doubt that Bartlett would be a better option than either Tommy Manzella or Angel Sanchez for Houston. He'd solidify a position that needs it. He'd provide very solid infield defense to help the pitching staff and his bat would probably play better in the National League than it does in the AL East. In short, he'd be a big upgrade over what the Astros have now.

He's not cheap, however, and he'll be owed $4 million in 2011. If the Astros are willing to pay his freight, he could be an intriguing option to bridge the gap until Jiovanni Mier is ready for the big leagues. If his defense slips at short, he can always move over to second as he gets older.

Tampa will need something for him, but since he's expensive and they need payroll flexibility, he might be had for a song. On the other hand, with the departure of Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay won't be in such a budget crunch and could ask for a higher level prospect. Would you be willing to give up J.D. Martinez for a guy like Bartlett?

3) James Loney, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers

Loney is from Houston. He's long been mentioned when the Astros bring up trade talks with the Dodgers, because the team likes him. He's never really tapped into his potential as a first baseman and does not currently have the bat to man the position full time.

That's why the Astros aren't going to trade for him, they're going to wait for the Dodgers to non-tender him and make him a free agent.

Now, ask yourself, why do the Astros need another first baseman? They just got rid of Lance Berkman and brought in Brett Wallace to man the position for the near future. If they want a backup for Wallace, doesn't Berkman make more sense? In some ways, yeah. Loney is not a perfect platoon for Wallace, since both players are left-handed. But, Berkman can't hit rightys any more, so that's out too. Loney, at least, is young enough to fill in full-time if Wallace is injured or ineffective, and that's the real reason I have him on the list.

The Astros have to do a good job of evaluating their own players here. Is Wallace going to be an above-average first baseman? Is that his ceiling? If they can get Loney for a reasonable cost, should they do that and put him in competition with Wallace? A little competition never hurt anyone, right?

It's not perfect, but with Houston's fascination with Loney, his untapped potential and his Houston ties, it's worth at least looking into this winter.

4) Jesse Crain, RHP, Minnesota Twins

Wait, the only pitcher on my list is...a reliever? What in God's green Earth am I thinking?

Well, you know Ed Wade. He loves relievers. Or so that's the stereotype of his tenure as a General Manager. Certainly, that Oscar Villarreal trade didn't work out and the Brandon Lyon contract was ridiculed (a little unfairly). But, what Wade is proving is that you can never have too many good relievers.

Crain is that. He has the third-highest fastball velocity among free agent relievers, has put up some good seasons with Minnesota and can strike guys out at a good clip. If he's available, he's exactly the kind of player Wade needs to focus on.

Think about it. If Crain does end up as a free agent and if the Astros could sign him for around $1.5 million per year, they'd have a very solid back of the bullpen. With Lyon, Lindstrom and Crain backed up by Wilton Lopez and Co., the 'pen would once again be a strength for a team. The Astros could shut down the final four innings of a game. That's worth bringing in a guy like this, right?

5) Ryan TheriotUTIL, Los Angeles Dodgers

I'm really raiding the Dodgers team in this article, aren't I? Well, Theriot was only a Dodger for a short time and didn't make a big impact there. In fact, his performance this season won't make him an impact player anywhere he goes.

But, he is valuable in that he's fast and can play multiple positions. His main value is tied up in his speed, but he's been known to play shortstop some and can definitely fill in at second base. If the Dodgers non-tender him, Theriot makes a lot of sense for the Astros as their utility infielder.

Theriot could spell whoever's at shortstop and back up Keppinger at second base. He'd be the pinch-runner off the bench and would give Brad Mills some more versatility off the bench. Hopefully, he'd also come cheap, which is the only reason the Astros should seriously consider him.

Houston needs some sort of backup option on the infield. If they go into the 2011 season with just Kepp, Manzella and Sanchez as their options up the middle, something is wrong. They went into 2010 with a similarly bare cupboard and had to scramble to find Sanchez in a trade. They won't be so lucky again.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.