Pitching on Astros' offseason radar
Wade targeting return of free-agent hurlers Wolf, Brocail
HOUSTON -- It's shaping up to be a relatively quiet offseason for the Astros, but while they won't be players for the CC Sabathias and Manny Ramirezes of this year's free-agent class, that doesn't mean they plan to be completely inactive.
The focus this year appears to be centered on their own free agents. Five members of the 2008 Astros club have filed for free agency, and the Astros actively pursued three, all pitchers: left-handed starter Randy Wolf, and right-handed relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Doug Brocail.
Hawkins re-signed last week, leaving Brocail and Wolf as general manager Ed Wade's main targets.
The remaining two Astros free agents figure to land elsewhere in '09: catcher Brad Ausmus, who will play for a southern California team or retire; and infielder Mark Loretta, who is unlikely to be offered arbitration by the Astros and could be replaced by a less expensive option such as David Newhan.
The likelihood of Brocail signing is higher than Wolf, whom the Astros may need more time to woo back to Houston. Wolf, who compiled a solid 6-2 record and a 3.57 ERA over 12 starts after he was traded from San Diego to Houston in late July, is expected to test the free-agent market before making a decision about his immediate future.
Wade, who aggressively courted Wolf last offseason after developing a relationship with the lefty during their time with the Phillies, is determined to bring Wolf back to Houston.
"Our approach is we'd love to get Randy back here," Wade said. "If we have the ability to add another pitching piece -- we'd like young, controllable starting pitching, but everyone is looking for it. We'd love to add more pitching if we could."
Whether Wolf is seriously interested in Houston remains to be seen. The Los Angeles native chose the Padres last year largely because they were geographically desirable, but this time around, Wolf said location won't necessarily be the deciding factor.
Those close to the Astros last year sensed Wolf's success at Minute Maid Park, coupled with a solid showing from the Astros' defense playing behind him, might convince the left-hander to stay. But once the exclusive negotiating window closes between free agents and the teams who they played for last year, anything can happen.
The Astros may dip into the free-agent market while searching for help for the starting rotation, beyond Wolf. Ben Sheets, a native of Louisiana who has hinted in the past he would be interested in signing with the Astros, may be a target. There are lingering issues, however, in the form of a muscle tear in Sheets' right elbow that may have caused his value on the free-agent market to plummet.
Once considered a top target this offseason, the right-hander came down with the elbow injury toward the end of the regular season, and he was unavailable to the Brewers during their short playoff run. Should the Astros sign him, they'll be faced with the possibility of Sheets needing surgery at some point during the length of his contract.
Wade has also acknowledged a preliminary interest in Mike Hampton, whom Wade will look into after he concludes negotiations with Brocail and Wolf. Beyond that, Wade prefers to keep his plans vague, speaking in broader terms regarding the free agency landscape. He also hasn't ruled out hitting the trade market, which is where he'll likely find catching help.
Wade feels the Winter Meetings, set to take place in Las Vegas in early December, are going to be busy.
"Next Friday begins open season on the free-agent market," Wade said. "Some of those things are going to move very, very slowly, so we're going to get into Las Vegas, and some of the bigger names are going to be out there and they're going to be occupying the time of some of the larger revenue clubs that have the ability to play in that market.
"So you're going to have some clubs who can satisfy their needs through free agency, but I'll continue these trade talks. But I'd really rather do it through free agency and try to string the trade stuff along and hope those things don't deteriorate in the meantime while I'm still chasing my primary objective.
"That said, I do think that Vegas has the potential for a lot of things, whether it's a lot of free-agent signings which will then cause a domino effect of trades or just the trades ending up themselves. I think there will be more of them than there has been the last couple of years."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.