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A Houston Astros Offseason: Key Stories That Matter Most

What will the timeline look like for the Astros' offseason and what can fans expect this winter?

For many Astros fans, the season ended last Sunday with a 4-0 shutout victory over the Chicago Cubs. As someone who frequently writes about this team, there is no such thing as the offseason. Forgive me if I steal a term from football, but for me, there is the regular season and then there is the business season.

That’s when all the decisions get made on what the 2011 team might look like. Players go to winter ball, players declare free agency, players are traded. It’s a mad house. Since I care about all you Houston fans out there, I put together a little primer on the offseason. Think of this as both a list of the big storylines facing Houston this winter and a timeline of what will happen.

Nov. 5, 2010 – Free agency filing window opens

(Actually, it will open the day after the World Series ends. Nov. 5 is the first day after Game 7 of the WS, which is why I picked it here).

Astros storyline: Houston will have few decisions to make here. It looks like Tim Byrdak has used up his arbitration clock and should be a free agent, while Brian Moehler and Geoff Blum both had expiring contracts. Blum, of course, had his 2011 option declined by the Astros and indicated he will not be back next season. Jason Michaels also had a 2011 option, which was exercised by the Astros, so the utility outfielder will be back with the team next season.

Nov. 16-19, 2010 – General Managers Meeting/Owners Meeting, Orlando, Fla.

Astros storyline: This is the first chance Ed Wade will get to shop Carlos Lee. His left fielder has a bloated contract, but his no-trade clause ended this season. Lee will have another sort of no-trade clause kick in after the season, as every major league veteran who has spent 10 years in the big leagues and five of them with the same team gets a chance to veto any trade. That’s commonly referred to as 10-and-5 rights, which will kick in for Carlos after the 2011 season. So, Wade has from this point till Aug. 30, 2011 to move Lee’s enormous contract, which has two years and 37 million dollars left on it.

Nov. 23-30, 2010 – Window for teams to offer arbitration to departing free agents and for said free agents to accept

Astros storylines: None of the Astros free agents will garner draft pick compensation, so offering them arbitration will mainly be about trying to keep them around. I bet the Astros decline on all three possible free agents, though its possible they offer Moehler, just to get him back on a one-year deal.

Dec. 2, 2010 – Last day for teams to tender 2011 contracts to players under team control

Astros storylines: With young teams, this day is big, but for different reasons. Teams basically control what they pay players for the first three years they are on the big league roster. There are minimum salaries, but teams can choose to pay a guy a little more, if he’s been a key contributor.

This deadline is basically a technicality, but in recent years, teams have negotiated long-term deals with players around this time. The Milwaukee Brewers locked up Ryan Braun to a long-term deal before this date after his rookie season. The Colorado Rockies did the same with Troy Tulowitski after his rookie season. For the Astros, the only player who may warrant that is Chris Johnson, but I doubt the team reaches out to him. Houston has been very conservative with this process and prefers to use arbitration to keep salaries down during the first six years of a players’ career.

Dec. 6-9, 2010 – Winter Meetings, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Astros storylines: This is where the action happens. Houston under Wade has a history of making waves at these meetings. In 2007, it was the Tejada trade. In 2008, it was Mike Hampton and Doug Brocail. Last year, it was the Matt Lindstrom trade and Brandon Lyon signing. This is the most likely time for Wade to pull off a Carlos Lee trade and it may be the time when he tries to deal one of his arbitration-eligible guys.

Jan. 5-15, 2010 – Arbitration filing period

Astros storylines: Houston has a ton of players up for arbitration. Some figure to be very expensive. Let’s break down the most important of the bunch and see what Houston is likely to do with each:

Hunter Pence – The outfielder had a good season in 2010, but on an awful offensive team, he was the best player at the plate. When he struggled at the plate, Houston basically lost the game. However, Pence is a Super-Two player and will have two more cracks at arbitration after this season. The Astros may decide to deal him to avoid big costs down the road or they may elect to sign him to a long-term deal for a little cost certainty. With Tal Smith as president, Houston feels good about its chances in arbitration hearings, though, since Smith’s other job is as a an arbitration consultant for the other 29 Major League teams. With that in mind, the Astros have not typically "bought out" a player’s arbitration years in quite a while. Of the two possibilities, I bet Pence gets moved before he signs a long-term deal.

Wandy Rodriguez – The reason for Houston’s second-half surge was its pitching. Wandy was at the heart of that movement and should command another hefty pay day. Houston already went to an actual hearing with him last season, beating the player and paying him two million less than he requested. If they do it again, who knows what kinds of bad feelings may be created. Wandy may decide he doesn’t want to play in Houston and create a distraction in the clubhouse like Roy Oswalt did for the first part of 2010. Expect teams to come calling in droves for Wandy at the Winter Meetings. That doesn’t mean Wade will move him, but if a team offers a big package, will the Astros be able to resist?

Michael Bourn – This will be Bourn’s second go-round in arbitration. He signed his deal avoiding it pretty easily this time, coming off a career offensive season and his first Gold Glove. There’s no telling if he’ll win a second, but he certainly played well enough defensively to earn it. Unfortunately, his offense fell off from his 2009 levels. That will hurt him here and should keep his cost down. I expect Houston to agree on another one-year deal at some point before January with Bourn.

Matt Lindstrom – What do you do with a reliever who was lights-out for part of the year and had to be replaced in the second half? What do you do with a guy who made 6 million in 2010 and could make more than that next season? More importantly, what do you do with this expensive guy when you have another expensive reliever already on the roster who can close? Houston was able to trade for Lindstrom cheaply last season because the Florida Marlins didn’t believe his arbitration price was worth his performance on the field. Does Houston make a similar decision? I’m not sure if there would be much of a market for Lindstrom this winter, since he again suffered through injuries and inconsistency. He’s possibly the best candidate here to be non-tendered, which means he would immediately become a free agent.

Jeff Keppinger – Also in his second year of arbitration, Kepp is coming off one of his best seasons yet. He earned just over one million last season, and should at least triple that for 2011. A versatile guy, Kepp is probably Houston’s best option at second base, but Wade might be reluctant to go into the season with him at the position. Second could be a spot the Astros look to shore up through trades or free agent signings. It seems like Mills and Co. like Kepp and want him around, so I think a deal gets done, but there is a slight possibility he’s traded or non-tendered.

Nelson Figueroa – This one is a very tough call. Figueroa is going into arbitration with Houston as a 34-year old long reliever/fifth starter. That’s not exactly the kind of player a team in Houston’s situation needs to be paying 3 million dollars for. I’m not sure if he’ll get that much, but however solid he’s been down the stretch, look for Houston to explore every possible fifth starter option before bringing Figueroa back. I expect this deal to go down to the deadline in January. Of course, I also expected Wade to decline Brian Moehler’s option last season and he got picked up before the 2009 offseason really got started. The moral of the story? I really don’t know much about the business season…

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