Don't hold your breath
I might get more excited about the winter meetings than any other time of year. My frequent lobbies for press credentials so far haven't been answered, but I can hold out hope. As for your Houston Astros, you can hope for big names to come walk through the door, but it just isn't going to happen this year. Still, there are a few names out there that can make 2012 a little more bearable.
Instead of breaking this down through ranking, we are going to split it up by need. The most pressing need in terms of current need is probably behind the plate. The Astros have Jason Castro returning from injury. Otherwise, they have three or four catchers (if you count Craig Tatum) that combined to be the worst-hitting catchers in baseball last season.
Humberto Quintero is a solid backup catcher, but he should not be playing regularly. So, the Astros could sign a veteran that is capable of playing half the time in order to prevent him from taking on 300 or more plate appearances. If Castro can play that player would platoon with him in addition to pinch-hitting or playing some first base.
After that, the club could use an additional relief pitcher for depth. Mark Melancon is a decent closer, but probably more suited to setup. Brandon Lyon may return from injury. The rest of the bullpen is young and relatively unproven. Another veteran to throw in the seventh or eighth inning would help.
The rest of the free agents are all dependent on what happens in the offseason. If Clint Barmes leaves via free agency then the club will have to address the hole. If they trade Wandy Rodriguez and/or Brett Myers then they will need to address the end of the rotation as well.
Hernandez can play catcher and first.
Hernandez is ideal because he provides bust protection at two different positions. If both Brett Wallace and J.D. Martinez come up snake eyes, he can shift to first base and Carlos Lee can shift back to left field. If Jason Castro comes up bust then he can get the bulk of the starts behind the dish.
Hernandez will be 36 next May, so no one is going to want to offer him anymore than two years. He hit .282 this past season with 12 home runs in 328 plate appearances. He will be a fairly hot commodity, so someone else may beat the Astros out for his services.
Doumit is also a versatile option.
Depending on who you ask, Doumit is either a butcher or merely below average behind the dish. One thing is for sure, he isn't going to make anyone forget Johnny Bench. Still, the Astros have multiple considerations here. First, Doumit has played some outfield and first base. Secondly, they will be adding the designated hitter in 2013.
He hit .303 with eight home runs in only 236 plate appearances. He wouldn't be the first guy to sign and wait a year to claim a spot. He should play at least this much next year if not more. He would be an ideal DH candidate the following season.
Shoppach is a Baylor product.
Shoppach at first glance would appear to be more of the same. He hit under .200 a year ago, but he does draw some walks and obviously offers more power than anyone the Astros have behind the dish. Last season's batting average wasn't normal for him, so you might get him for less than you might normally.
However, he is the only free-agent catcher (outside of Yadier Molina) that profiles as a regular catcher. That means he might command more money and therefore might be out of the Astros' price range. He hit .176 a year ago with 11 home runs in 253 plate appearances.
Maybe you can go home again.
Sometimes you start off in the perfect situation without realizing it. Chad Qualls was never asked to be the man in Houston and I'm sure part of him always thought he could be. Now, he knows the answer to that question. He is more suited for the seventh and eighth innings than the ninth inning.
Now that he hasn't been in the ninth, he has returned to being a capable reliever. He would be perfect for the Astros again. He would give them insurance in case Brandon Lyon can't come back from his elbow injury. Last year, he went 6-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 74 innings.
Hawkins is nearing the end of a long career.
LaTroy Hawkins is the older version of Chad Qualls, He reached the same discovery about eight years ago and he has been a happier man ever since. He knows he isn't a ninth-inning guy and is content to lock down the seventh and eighth innings. He sports a 2.42 ERA in only 48 innings with the Central Division champs.
Hawkins will be 39 in December, so he likely won't last much longer and he isn't as durable as Qualls. However, if the price is right they just might bring him back to town. Sharing the eighth inning with Lyon would be ideal for the aging Hawkins.
The club needs a veteran option here.
When you take a step back you become more and more frightened by the three-headed monster at third base. Matt Downs is a second baseman by trade and has only a partial season's worth of numbers to make him the outside favorite. The inside men are even more frightening.
Watching Chris Johnson for another season would be enough to make you wake up in a cold sweat. Jimmy Paredes will field the position, but he is a singles hitter that doesn't walk much. Blake is one year removed from .248/17/56/64. He had a .713 OPS in limited time last year. It remains to be seen how much he has left if anything, but for a low price he could be a good gamble.
Does Derosa have anything left?
When you see your guy on television during the playoffs it makes you a bit nervous. It means he's test marketing his next career. Like Blake, it is unclear what he has left and after two woeful seasons you might see him as more of a Jake Taylor (wish we would have had him two years ago).
He can play some second base in addition to third, so if he has anything left he could prove to be valuable. He hit .279 a year ago, but has one home run in the past two seasons. He hit more than 20 in 2008 and 2009. Will the real Mark DeRosa please stand up?
At the right price, he could be a bargain.
Cubs fans were always disappointed in Fukodome because he was getting paid more than $10 million per season. He hit .260 in four years in Chicago and never hit more than 13 home runs. When you're thinking .300 with 20 home runs you are going to be disappointed. Dig deeper and you find an OBP that never dipped below .342.
His .361 career OBP would look great in the second spot in the order. Fukodome can play right field or center field capably. Look at our outfield and those positions are the most unsettled. He would provide a capable regular at one of them.
Ankiel could be nice depth for the right price.
The key to happiness in the free-agency market is expectations. Signing a guy like Carlos Lee and expecting him to be a superstar is going to make you unhappy. Signing Rick Ankiel and hoping he can be an effective fourth outfielder and you might be thrilled. Ankiel isn't a regular at this stage of his career, but he can play all three positions very well.
He hit nine home runs a year ago in over 400 plate appearances. Ideally, he shouldn't get any more than that anywhere he goes. However, if the price is right he could provide more depth in an outfield that is suddenly very young and inexperienced.
Renteria has a little left in the tank.
When you see the list of available shortstops you begin to understand why signing Clint Barmes is such a priority. Renteria is only a consideration if Barmes leaves. This is no disrespect to Renteria. With a couple more years he will surpass 2,500 career hits.
That being said, he is way closer to the end than he is his prime. He may be able to scrap a season or two out of his body, but he will have to wait around for teams like Houston that could be desperate for a veteran presence.
Cabrera will be waiting awhile for his phone to ring.
When you see names like Renteria and Cabrera it makes you realize how unappetizing Angel Sanchez is as a full-time option. Realistically, the Astros need a one-year stopgap at least until Jonathan Villar or Jiovanni Mier are ready. That could easily be two years. Renteria and Cabrera are ideal stopgap players.
A number of teams will be looking at Willis
Even though he won only one game last season, Dontrelle Willis made quite a bit of money for himself last season. He showed up in the best shape of his life and seemingly put most of his control problems behind him.
He had a 5.00 ERA with the Reds, but he had only a 4.10 fielding independent pitching (FIP). FIP tends to be a better predictor of future performance. I'd take a flyer on him even if the Astros didn't trade either veteran this offseason.
Garland is coming off shoulder surgery.
Garland is usually good for 200 innings, but those days may be over with. Garland went on the shelf in June and eventually had season-ending surgery. The surgery called him for to rest six months. That means he should be ready for spring training, but he isn't a sure bet anymore.
A small guarantee with incentives could lure him to compete.
Harden is another formerly great pitcher on the move.
Wait, didn't you used to be Rich Harden? Well, he hasn't been that guy since 2008. Since then, he's been a guy that throws a lot of pitches and doesn't seem to get outs as easily. He still strikes out a lot of guys (9.9 per nine innings in 2011) but he would be more effective shaving off two strikeouts and one walk per nine innings.
Harden failed a physical before joining the Red Sox in July. He has been a significant injury risk for some time, but if you give him a reasonable contract with incentives it would not be that big of a risk. Plus, he would be another body for competition in March.