While you might not see copious mid-inning pitching changes or squirrels darting across the plate to start rallies, the Astros are taking a page from the champion St. Louis Cardinals' handbook as they build toward 2012. It can best be seen in looking at the acquisition of a former Cardinal, Nick Stavinoha.
The Astros signed the 29-year-old Houston native to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league spring training even though they are not sure for what position they signed him. Stavinoha has played mostly outfield in the major leagues but spent most of 2011 playing first base in Triple-A.
It's the latest move in a quiet offseason from a spending standpoint that has added to the Astros' roster flexibility. They already had Matt Downs, who played every infield position last season, started sporadically in the outfield and is the emergency catcher. And their waiver claim of Brian Bixler gives them a player equally adept at infield and outfield.
"He's done a little bit of everything," general manager Ed Wade said of Stavinoha. "I think he fits into that St. Louis model of being able to move the pieces around. We love to have those guys, too."
The Cardinals had several key players and small role players -- Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker, Tyler Greene, Tony Cruz and Mark Hamilton -- who played both infield and outfield for former manager Tony La Russa. The Astros don't have that many but have definitely created for themselves a spring training roster race that's not as simple as just plugging people into one slot.
And Stavinoha is just part of that.
"I think (manager Brad Mills) would give him every opportunity to show what he can do at every position," Wade said.
--1BOF Nick Stavinoha will not just be returning to his hometown but transitioning to a place that offers a little more opportunity than the World Series champion Cardinals, with whom he never cracked the big leagues in 2011. Stavinoha, a graduate of Houston's Jersey Village High School, could use his right-handed stance to his advantage given that most of the competitors for outfield spots -- Jordan Schafer, Brian Bogusevic, J.B. Shuck and Travis Buck -- hit left-handed.
--OF Travis Buck will join an extremely crowded race for Astros outfield spots after signing a minor league contract with an invitation to major league spring training. Buck, who will turn 28 later this month, has played part of five seasons in the big leagues, mostly in the corner outfield positions. Should LF J.D. Martinez keep the job in left, competition could be fierce for the remaining spots with OFs Jordan Schafer, Jason Bourgeois, Brian Bogusevic and J.B. Shuck already on the roster and OF1B Nick Stavinoha also getting a minor league deal.
--2B Jose Altuve was named the Venezuelan Winter League's player of the week on Nov. 7 after hitting .522 for the week in his native country. Through 19 games for Magallenes, Altuve was hitting .375 with a .538 slugging percentage. He's penciled in as the Astros' starter for 2012.
--RHP Mark Melancon recorded the final outs of the Major League All-Stars' sweep of Chinese Taipei in their five-game showcase. It has already been a wild offseason for the worldly new closer who is experiencing fatherhood for the first time and was still eager to join his fellow big-leaguers in Asia.
--RHP Aneury Rodriguez has returned to starting this winter, getting four starts for Toros del Este of the Dominican Winter League. Starts still might be hard to come by with the Astros for the former Rule 5 pick, who gained and lost a starting job in quick succession. For the Astros last season, he had a 5.80 ERA as a starter and a 4.80 mark as a reliever.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8.26 million -- Average salary of the 14 players who were the primary designated hitters for their American League teams last year, which is the reason the Astros' prospective ownership group is seeking compensation for a possible move to the American League.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "First and foremost we want people to be safe. Second, we want them to feel comfortable in the surroundings where they're able to produce." -- General manager Ed Wade on giving players the choice to leave winter ball in Venezuela, where ever present fears of violence came to fruition with the kidnapping of Nationals C Wilson Ramos.
It's strangely fortuitous timing: A potential inability to spend money with ownership in limbo coincides with a situation in which it could be imprudent to spend a lot of money. The Astros, who crossed 100 losses with room to spare, have so many holes that plugging them through free agency would lead to a more expensive patchwork roster. The rebuilding process that began in 2010 with the trades of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt will be given time to work, and that likely will mean few changes.
ARRIVAL: C Craig Tatum (waiver claim from Orioles).
BIGGEST NEEDS: There are few immediate needs for a team just looking to stay the course in a rebuilding process. The acquisition of a shortstop from the bargain bin might a priority if SS Clint Barmes splits as a free agent and INF Angel Sanchez is not given the position full-time. The Astros might look to trade a starting pitcher to relieve some salary and a potential logjam and to get younger.
FREE AGENTS: SS Clint Barmes, OF Jason Michaels.
Barmes probably is gone. Michaels does not fit in with the Astros' youth movement. He might have to find a spring training invitation somewhere -- his days of guaranteed contracts are likely over.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Alberto Arias, C Humberto Quintero.
Happ's performance combined with his first-year eligible status guarantee that he won't be prohibitively expensive, so he should be retained whether or not he's penciled in for a starting spot. Quintero is entering his final year before free agency and is probably a keeper because of the uncertainty with C Jason Castro coming off an ACL injury. Arias is not likely to be tendered a contract.
IN LIMBO: LHP Wandy Rodriguez, RHP Brett Myers.
Rodriguez is the most likely Astro to be traded as he still has two expensive years remaining on his contract and a third that becomes a player option if a trade goes through. The Astros engaged in talks at the July deadline and after Rodriguez was claimed in August by the Rockies, but they couldn't work out a deal either time. However, with the team still in payroll-cutting mode, talks could be revived. Myers' September surge may make his 2012 deal and vesting option for 2013 tradeable.
--RHP Brandon Lyon (right biceps tendon surgery in June 2011) was scheduled to engage in a throwing program in the first six weeks after the season, then rest and pick it up again around Christmas. He expects to be fully recovered from for spring training.
--C Jason Castro (right knee surgery in March 2011) missed the entire season. He will play in the Arizona Fall League to make sure he is ready for the 2012 job.
--CF Jordan Schafer (fractured left middle finger) was never 100 percent after joining the Astros. He will take advantage of time to rest and heal in the offseason.