Hot Stove Daily: Houston Astros

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Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Houston Astros.

2008 record: 86-75

Finish: Third place in the NL Central, 11 games behind the Chicago Cubs.

2008 opening-day payroll: $88.9 million

Expected 2009 payroll: $99 million to $102 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

Maybe a more appropriate term for the Astros is offseason inaction. Their boldest move was owner Drayton McLane coming out in favor of a salary cap, then quickly admitting it'd never fly.

Otherwise, there's inaction fans will love (ticket prices didn't go up), inaction that could benefit the team (shortstop Miguel Tejada and closer Jose Valverde weren't sold off) and inaction that won't help (not signing a free-agent catcher or a starting pitcher besides Mike Hampton).

Re-signing starter Randy Wolf and adding another starter, finding a catcher to replace the disappointing J.R. Towles and either holding onto third baseman Ty Wiggington or signing a solid free-agent hitter were the offseason tasks.

It wasn't a good sign early on when general manager Ed Wade pulled a multi-year offer to Wolf off the table after rethinking payroll. The other needs were addressed in patchwork fashion.

Hampton, an oft-injured starter, was signed on the cheap, with nobody even suggesting he could regain the form of his 22-win season with the Astros a decade ago. Wade let Wiggington go rather than pay him the $6 million he would have gotten in arbitration, and the inexpensive Aaron Boone was signed instead. And the only catcher with major league experience is career backup Humberto Quintero.

Adding a catcher and a utility infielder who could give the aging Tejada an occasional rest at shortstop are the final tasks before spring training.

REALITY CHECK

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Oswalt

The Astros had designs on Andy Pettitte after he turned down the Yankees' $10 million offer. Then Wade checked his budget again and decided it is extremely unlikely, leaving manager Cecil Cooper with an underwhelming rotation of Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Moehler, Hampton and Brandon Backe.

The bullpen is strong, however, with Doug Brocail and LaTroy Hawkins setting up Valverde, and every position except catcher is set around the horn. Production, though, is another matter.

Lance Berkman can't be expected to replicate his flirt-with-.400 first half again. Young outfielders Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence lacked discipline at the plate and need to show dramatic improvement to fill their potential. Left fielder Carlos Lee and second baseman Kazuo Matsui need to stay healthy.

The Astros were the hottest team in the National League in the second half of 2008, climbing into the wild-card race by September. The surge ended when Hurricane Ike forced the postponement of two games against the Chicago Cubs that had been scheduled for Minute Maid Park. Playing in Milwaukee in front of stands full of Cubs fans, the Astros lost both and never recovered.

Wade and McLane have been among baseball's most candid executives regarding the impact of the recession on payroll. A $6 million raise due to Lee and the usual round of arbitration increases have already boosted payroll near the $100 million threshold. McLane won't go higher unless Pettitte comes as a hometown bargain who might pay for himself through higher attendance on the nights he pitches.

Next: New York Yankees

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