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Why the Astros should avoid free agents this offseason

Over the past few weeks, I've heard a lot of discussion among fans and sportswriters about the possibility that the Astros pursue solutions in free agency to increase their chances of contending next season.  The Astros have been linked, however spuriously, to players from Carl Crawford to Cliff Lee.

Part of the reasoning seems to be that, shed of the contracts of Lance Berkman and (at least in part) Roy Oswalt, the team has money to spend.  So why not spend it to improve the ballclub?  And in a different situation, I might agree with that thinking.  But as much as I squint at the list of 2011 MLB free agents and contort it up and down, I can't find a single player whose signing I would wholeheartedly favor at any realistic price.

The 2011 Houston Astros are a team with many question marks.  I don't say holes; mysteries, but not positions I'm sure we have no answer already in place.  Even if you generously assume the Astros are a .500 team on the balance, how do we know that by signing a free agent we aren't blocking one of the current players critical to reaching that status, resulting in a marginal or even nonexistent gain in win/loss record?

For a borderline contender (and again, that's a generous assessment), signing a free agent to a long-term deal can be beneficial.  This could be the case if you had no good prospects in full season ball at that position, or of course already at the major league level, with the assumption that over the course of a multi-year deal, some later years, at least, would be spent in contention, and no important players would be blocked by the free agent's presence.

However, the Astros have valuable players or prospects at every position already in the organization.  The minor league system is actually very balanced, now; it's not quite good, but it's a lot more solid than it used to be, and many of these players have the ceilings to be above average regulars.  Signing a player like Carl Crawford--likely to demand a deal in excess of five years--would block those prospects, some of whom could be ready as soon as 2012.

So how about a short, one-year deal, a lesser player, an older veteran?  He wouldn't block anybody for more than a season, and could be the piece the Astros need.  Here's the thing; the kind of players you can get on one-year deals are unlikely to make a big enough impact to vault even a .500 team into contention.  And we have young players to take a look at in all of our positions.  So by signing a free agent to a one-year deal, the chances that it actually allows us to contend are very low.  We wouldn't contend, but we would waste playing time which could be spent determining whether a younger player under team control has value to future contending Astros teams.

On the flip side, consider that free agency is not the only way to improve the team.  A trade seems more palatable in the Astros' situation.  Adding a young prospect or player to compete with the ones already in the fold makes more sense than spending big money on a free agent, for instance; in a rebuilding year, your goal is to find the next inexpensive core to build around, and this approach could help in that area.

Or perhaps the Astros could somehow flip Carlos Lee for another mammoth, burdensome contract, for no net gain in pure production versus cost, but to improve the team's positional situation (Carlos Lee is really only defensively suitable for first base at this point, but Brett Wallace needs that playing time to develop).

But free agency?  None of the players available look appealing to me.  Perhaps if there was a really good free agent shortstop out there, it would be worth considering; but the shortstop market is, and I don't say this to insult the available players, who I'm sure are fine utility infielders (cough), appalling.

What's your take on the 2011 free agency situation?  Agree?  Disagree?  I'd love to discuss it with you in the comments, so fire away.