"In Vegas, I got into a long argument with the man at the roulette wheel over what I considered to be an odd number."
-- Steven Wright
So did you hear the one about the guy from Houston who walks into a Las Vegas casino, sits down at the blackjack table and says, "Deal me in?"
"Hey, pal," the dealer says, "where's your chips?"
"Oh," the guy says. "Well, I've got no money. But I'll toss in Jose Valverde."
OK, we're warning you. Baseball's traveling December road show, the winter meetings, pulls into Las Vegas this week. And you know what that means:
A week of bad poker puns, overstretched roulette analogies and knuckleheaded gambling jokes (just like that one) will be unavoidable. Sorry.
In fact, they'll be so unavoidable that we're dipping this entire winter meetings preview into -- what else? -- a vat of casino-flavored marinade. But hey, don't say we didn't warn you. Now deal the cards:
Five big trading chips
J.J. Putz: The Putz rumblings during the past week have run the gamut, from "on the market" to "not interested in moving him." So here's the deal: Seattle would listen to talks about him, about Adrian Beltre, about Erik Bedard, about pretty much anybody. But Putz is one commodity this team seems especially unlikely to move. GM Jack Zduriencik told us he's not interested in trading his closer for "a little red wagon." So it would have to be a big, big deal. And as one baseball man put it, "This is the worst market ever to trade a guy like that. You've got a bunch of closers who are free agents. You've got guys like Valverde and [Bobby] Jenks available. They're better off waiting [until the trading deadline, or beyond]."
Zack Greinke: Teams keep checking in on Greinke. And the Royals never quite get around to saying "nope," "no way" or "absolutely not," even though they really, really don't want to move him. So indications are that, once again, Greinke is a name they'll at least talk about this week. But judging by the theoretical sticker price, it's obvious they have almost zero appetite for trading him. "Let me ask you something," said an official of one team. "Would you give up three major league pieces and two top, top prospects for him? Because that's what it would take." The fact is, the Royals have higher expectations than ever and so little to build those aspirations around that they have to hold on to Greinke. And, oh-by-the-way, there's not even any indication they want to deal David DeJesus or Mark Teahen, either. So who's the most available Royal by far? Jose Guillen.
Jeremy Hermida: People sometimes assume the Marlins will trade just about anybody on the roster who's arbitration-eligible. So why not a guy like Hermida, who has tantalized them with his talent, yet frustrated them with his unfulfilled potential? Well, there's plenty of interest (in both Hermida and the even-less-available Dan Uggla), according to clubs that have spoken to the Fish. The Marlins have been pushing Jorge Cantu over Hermida, at least so far. But Hermida fits exactly what teams like the Cubs, Phillies and Rays are looking for to plug into their outfield holes. And the Marlins have young studs like Cameron Maybin, Logan Morrison and Michael Stanton on their outfield horizon. So it will be interesting to see whether they can build a Hermida deal around Jason Bartlett and a young starter (Edwin Jackson or Andy Sonnanstine) with Tampa Bay, or around infield prospect Jason Donald with the Phillies.
More chips to watch
Bobby Jenks, Delmon Young, Ty Wigginton, Valverde, Miguel Tejada, Huston Street, Aaron Heilman, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Eric Byrnes, George Sherrill, Chad Bradford, Robinson Cano, Marlon Byrd, Gerald Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, Jason Marquis, Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Hernandez.
Cards in the deck
THE ACE: In this deck, it would be Mr. CC Sabathia, ladies and gentlemen. Hey, you were expecting maybe Horacio Ramirez? CC is the central figure of this entire offseason extravaganza. And this could be the week we figure out where the heck he's going. First, the Yankees will attempt to find out, once and for all, whether he wants to be in New York. Then the Brewers and his West Coast trifecta (Angels, Dodgers, Giants) undoubtedly will be given one last chance to come close to the Yankees' offer (six years, $140 million). And then this thing could actually get settled. Or not.
THE KING: According to the dictionary, kings are "pre-eminent in their class." So we'll hereby let Mark Teixeira ascend that throne because he's clearly the pre-eminent bat on this card table. Like the Yankees, the Angels are getting tired of letting Scott Boras control the pace on a player they've publicly announced is the centerpiece of their offseason game plan. And at some point soon, almost certainly within the next couple of weeks, they could do what they've done in the past with free agents like Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter -- give Teixeira and Boras a 24- to 36-hour deadline to sign or bail. That approach could accelerate if the Angels sense that Sabathia -- their secondary target -- is about to go off the board. The hitch in that strategy is that it could be harder for them to take a hard line on Teixeira than it has been in the past with other players. The Red Sox remain intensely interested in Teixeira. And Boras is rarely in a hurry to move. So the Angels are in a tough spot because, as one GM put it, "Teixeira is the kind of guy no one can walk away from. If you want that guy, there's not a second bat like that."
THE JOKER: There can be only one laugh riot in this deck, and who better than Manny Ramirez to embody this chucklefest? Manny has no idea what a nonstop topic of conversation he's been this winter. And if we can sum up that conversation succinctly, it would go: "Who's going to give that guy 100 million bucks?" Check out a couple of sample comments from high-ranking execs: "Scott's going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat on this one. Right now, there are too many other outfielders on the market. I know Manny is a much better hitter than them. But those other guys are also going to cost a lot less, and none of them bring his baggage. Manny's a hard guy to go to your owner with and say, 'I really want to bring this guy into our clubhouse.'" … "Scott literally has to create an interest on Manny. If he can't create it because of the player himself, he has to create it with need. Right now, teams have choices. But as time goes on and other guys sign, those choices will go away. So Scott is going to have to wait a long time to let this play out. He's going to have to get Teixeira placed, then go back to all the clubs who didn't get Teixeira and try to sell them on Manny." Oh, Manny will get a job, of course. But good luck on getting him four years or six years.
FOUR OF A KIND: It isn't often when you can draw a hand with four star-studded free-agent closers. But if that's not the most fascinating hand in this deck, we'll see your bid and raise you double. Those four closers -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood and Trevor Hoffman -- have sure had dramatically different careers. But their free-agent fates are intertwined because they find themselves out there in a limited market for pitchers who do what they do. The Mets have interest in all four and seem to be in favor of signing a free agent instead of trading for a closer. So although a half-dozen other teams could be shopping for closers, the Mets control the market because they'll at least pay Bloomingdale's prices. The others -- the Brewers, Indians, Rangers, Tigers and Cardinals (and possibly the Rays) -- are more Wal-Mart types. So the forces at work seem poised to drive K-Rod toward Queens, the only real big-money destination on his map. But the Mets also have been adamant that they won't give any closer more than three years. So there's a definite scenario on the board in which they'll take one of the other options (watch for movement on the Kerry Wood front), and that could drive K-Rod right back to the Angels if he needs a place to tread water for a year. Don't bet the Christmas party fund on that scenario, but nothing's impossible in this game.
DEUCES WILD: The other crazy market out there is the catchers market, which is overstuffed with such diverse options. You have two aging free-agent All-Stars -- Jason Varitek and Pudge Rodriguez -- who have Boras for an agent and no clear market. And then there's a glut of catchers who potentially are out there to be traded for -- a group that includes Ramon Hernandez, Jeff Mathis, Kenji Johjima, Yorvit Torrealba, the entire catching population in Texas and possibly even Bengie Molina and Brian Schneider. What makes this game particularly fascinating is that the Red Sox obviously are trolling for their next catcher even though they haven't slammed the door on re-signing Varitek to help groom his successor. So will Varitek accept their arbitration offer and go back to Boston for a year? Will he wait to see whether something else develops with a team like Detroit? Will he take a chance that the Red Sox will deal for a veteran catcher and move on? Can't wait to find out. In the meantime, the hottest catching rumor heading into the meeting seems to connect Texas' Gerald Laird with the Tigers or Reds.
FACE CARDS: You'd know their faces anywhere. And that's where they might wind up playing next year, too -- just about anywhere. So this will be an excellent week to ask: Will Jason Giambi really resurface in Oakland? Is Jamie Moyer actually thinking about leaving Philadelphia for a few extra dollars? Could Randy Johnson win his 300th game for the A's? Was Andy Pettitte serious when he tried to convince Joe Torre he'd like to be a Dodger? And is there still regular work out there for Junior Griffey, Omar Vizquel, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent and Kenny Rogers?
Other winter meetings plotlines
WHAT'S IN THE POT: GMs talk more about the economy these days than Henry Paulson does. Maybe that's why, more than a month into the offseason, exactly five free agents have changed teams. Or maybe not. It's safe to say that there are players and agents who wonder whether that's the only reason. But whatever, there are 150 free agents who had better be prepared for a winter that will fulfill very few of their free-agent dreams.
HIGH ROLLERS: Only four teams have shown they have bucks to spend this winter, recession or no recession: the Braves, Angels, Red Sox and (shocker) Yankees. That makes them dangerous in a market as cautious as this one.
BUSTED: All of these teams are acting as if they need to dump big contracts before they can add any others: the Astros, Diamondbacks, Tigers, Pirates and (at least until their new owner sets their checking account free) even the Cubs.
LAST CALL: Finally, just for fun, we surveyed a bunch of baseball people this week on when they thought the big free agents will sign. Here's how that turned out:
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.