LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Once upon a time, in a baseball galaxy very different from this one, the winter meetings were a place where star players actually changed teams …
And general managers actually made trades …
And the landscape of the sport actually looked definitively different at the end of the week than it did at the beginning.
But that galaxy must now be one of those places you can't get to from here -- because that sure isn't how the 2006 winter meetings worked.
"This," Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi said on his way out the door, "is the new GM meetings."
It used to be the annual GM meetings, about a week after the World Series, where the deal-makers of this sport laid the groundwork for their offseason to-do list. But those GM meetings last month just turned into some kind of pre-pregame show for these meetings, where a whole lot of blabbing by a whole lot of people turned into not very much at all.
So what happened? How did the biggest rumorfest of the year come and go with only three noteworthy trades (Freddy Garcia to the Phillies for two young pitchers, Ambiorix Burgos from the Royals to the Mets for Brian Bannister, and Horacio Ramirez from Atlanta to Seattle for Rafael Soriano)?
"There are a lot of free agents still on the board," White Sox GM Kenny Williams said. "A lot of shell shock. General managers that went into the offseason, I think, with a certain amount budgeted and, because that certain amount now has been inflated to the point where it's not even realistic to start talks about some of these guys, you're left scrambling. I think some teams are still scrambling."
Nevertheless, the Mets' Omar Minaya predicted that a lot could happen over the next few days. So let's take a look at what was and wasn't accomplished at these winter meetings -- and what looms just over the horizon:
The consensus is that the Dodgers stretched a little too far by giving free agent Juan Pierre a five-year deal worth $44 million last month. But all the rest of GM Ned Colletti's acquisitions this winter have been established, winning players who signed contracts shorter than the norm.
His biggest catch was a real ace, Jason Schmidt, for three years, $47 million. Plus Luis Gonzalez (one year, $7 million) and heavily pursued left-hander Randy Wolf (one year, $8 million) were two perfect short-term fits.
Add in Mike Lieberthal (one year, $1.25 million) as a backup catcher and the re-signing of Nomar Garciaparra (two years, $18.5 million). And the Dodgers now are (A) set up to compete in the present and future (B) have excess pitching that could enable them to deal Brad Penny for an outfield bat, and (C) still have given up no elite prospects from baseball's best farm system. So this team has had as productive an offseason as any team in the sport.
One big question bouncing around the meetings was: Can the Red Sox's payroll possibly approach Yankees territory? Well, probably not. But if you count the $51.1 million posting fee for Daisuke Matsuzaka, this team has already committed more than $160 million this winter to Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew (five years, $70 million), Julio Lugo (four years, $36 million), Mike Timlin (one year, $2.8 million), Alex Cora (two years, $4 million) and Japanese reliever Hideki Okajima (two years, $2.5 million). And it still needs to sign Matsuzaka and find a closer.
So obviously, this won't be a thrifty winter for the Red Sox. Whether it's a productive winter will depend on how the rest of the pieces fit together. Matsuzaka would give them, potentially, a four-ace-deep rotation of Curt Schilling, Jonathan Papelbon, Josh Beckett and the best pitcher from Asia. And keeping Manny Ramirez, while adding Lugo and Drew, means this will not be a fun lineup to pitch to.
But Drew's de-energizer persona might not work in a high-energy town. Manny will always be a handful. And the closer options (beginning with question mark free agent Eric Gagne) aren't real inspiring. So, as always, the Red Sox will be talented, flawed and a high-upside work in progress.
There was, realistically, only one impact starting pitcher who was available for trading at these meetings: Freddy Garcia. And the Phillies reeled him in, because they were one team that had young starting pitching to deal and an inclination to be proactive.
Garcia isn't a true No. 1 starter. But he's certainly a win-now upgrade. And, in case you hadn't noticed, he is one of the most consistent pitchers in the whole sport. (Just two active pitchers have run off at least 200 innings and a dozen wins six years in a row: Garcia and Mark Buehrle.) Maybe most importantly, Garcia will allow the Phillies to trade another starter (most likely Jon Lieber) to fill their bullpen and/or lineup holes.
It's still hard to figure out how the Indians outscored their opponents this year by more runs (88) than the Dodgers, A's, Cardinals and White Sox -- and still finished fourth. So it will take far less work to turn Cleveland into a force than most of America seems to think.
Well, this team has already upgraded its outfield with David Dellucci (three years, $11.5 million) and bullpen (Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz, all on one-year deals) without spending a lot of money or tying its hands with long-term commitments. So if the rest of its offseason is as productive as the first month has gone, this is a team to watch out for.
The AL Central just gets better and better. And while no one has paid much attention, even the Royals are trying to make a move.
Not that new GM Dayton Moore didn't seem to overpay drastically for the enigmatic Gil Meche (five years, at a reported $55 million). But you can tell Moore came from Atlanta, because he just keeps stockpiling arms. Already this winter, he has brought in Meche, Bannister, Ken Ray, Wayne Franklin and Dewon Brazelton. And Miguel Batista might not be far behind.
Nobody in there is exactly Glavine, Maddux or Smoltz. But assuming enough of those pitchers turn into a real staff at some point, this team could actually be a force when masher Billy Butler and minor league player of the year Alex Gordon arrive in the next year or so. No kidding.
Keep ringing that cash register. With their latest signing, Ted Lilly (four years, $40 million), the Cubs now are up to $270.5 million committed to a free-agent battalion that includes Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Mark DeRosa and Lilly.
That's enough to buy 24 million small deep-dish pizzas at Gino's. But it wasn't enough to buy the Cubs everything they needed to fix their 96-loss 2006 nightmare. They still need another outfielder (preferably a center fielder) and a fifth starter. So amazingly, they're not done shopping yet.
But if they can trade an excess reliever (Bobby Howry?) for that final starter and add one of the free-agent outfielders they're talking to (Kenny Lofton, Cliff Floyd, etc.), this team might just be the favorite in the NL Central.
BARRY ZITO: Zito's agent, Scott Boras, did his best to stir up business by sending signals that teams like the Rangers, Mariners and Giants can't wait to give Zito $100 million. But all of those teams were sounding more cautious privately than Boras was making them out to be publicly.
And the Mets -- while continuing to insist they're not interested in going beyond five years, $70 million-$75 million -- seemed unusually confident that they were a great match for Zito's desire to market his effervescent personality and multiple talents, on and off the field. So a number of baseball men still predict Zito will be a Met. But it won't be anytime soon.
"I expect this to take two or three more weeks, at least," said an official of one team. "We still have a lot of Scott's pomp, circumstance, drama and ridicule to play out before this gets serious. I'd bet he takes this right up to the holidays. I think we're only in the second inning of this thing."
ANDY PETTITTE: Originally, Pettitte wasn't planning to decide whether he'll play next year until Christmas. But he abruptly sent word Wednesday, through agent Randy Hendricks, that he was giving the old thumbs-up to another season or two.
That seemed curious, but innocent enough, until reports surfaced Thursday that his hometown team, the Astros, was working hard to deal for White Sox starter Jon Garland. Even though that trade apparently fell apart by lunch time, it was a clear indication that Houston was busy planning for Life After Andy.
"Obviously," said an official of another team, "if the Astros got Garland, they'd be done with Pettitte. So why else would he move up the timetable? It makes too much sense. If he wants to go back there, he has to let them know now."
If Pettitte loses Houston as an option, indications are that the Yankees would love to pounce, after passing on Zito and Lilly. But the Yankees have been more cautious and patient this winter than ever, with GM Brian Cashman clearly in total control. So they might not be willing to get lured into any bidding derbies with the Astros if the tea leaves point toward Pettitte staying home.
ROGER CLEMENS: Get back to us in June.
DAISUKE MATSUZAKA: Get back to us at about 11:54 p.m. on Dec. 14, since you know Boras won't be ready to deal until he hears that clock ticking toward the deadline for signing Matsuzaka.
OTHER ARMS: Now that the Meches, Lillys and Vicente Padillas have signed, it's time for the next wave to get their due, at slightly lower price tags ($3 million-$6 million a year).
That group is topped by Jeff Suppan, Miguel Batista, Jason Marquis and Tomo Ohka -- all of whom have a number of bidders. One of the best bargains in that bunch could turn out to be Marquis, one of just 16 pitchers to win at least 14 games and pitch at least 190 innings in each of the last three seasons. Another intriguing name is Mark Mulder, who had shoulder surgery and doesn't figure to be ready for Opening Day, but is attracting wide interest from teams like the Mets, Rangers and Diamondbacks.
OTHER BATS: There aren't many difference makers left among the free-agent position players. Trot Nixon is an interesting name, but he has drawn only lukewarm interest after hitting just 27 homers over the last three seasons combined. So the best outfield option left is probably Cliff Floyd, who has told the Cubs, A's, Mariners and other teams he's willing to accept an incentive-based deal with a modest guarantee, even though he has been healthy enough (despite his reputation) to get 400 plate appearances in six of the last seven seasons.
In the middle infield, there are only Mark Loretta and Ron Belliard. And the most intriguing corner-infield bats belong to Shea Hillenbrand (being mildly pursued by the Yankees) and Aubrey Huff, the only player out there who can market himself as either a corner infielder or outfielder. Huff's numbers the last five years actually blow away J.D. Drew's. So he is suddenly a major target in Texas, Baltimore, Colorado, Pittsburgh and other places. And he could still wind up back in Houston.
The All-Unemployed Team
STARTING ROTATION: Clemens, Pettitte, Suppan, Batista, Marquis.
SS: Don't ask.
LF: Floyd, Shannon Stewart.
DH: Huff, White, Young, Nevin, Didn't You Used to Be Juan Gonzalez.
Seven Free-Agent Facts You Didn't Know
The only free agents left who won at least 14 games during the 2006 season are Zito (16), Pettitte (14) and Marquis (14).
The only free agents left who hit at least 20 homers are Huff (21) and Hillenbrand (21).
The only free agent left who hit .300 (in at least 400 at-bats) is Kenny Lofton (.301).
The only free agent left who stole 20 bases is Lofton (32).
Eleven free-agent starters allowed fewer baserunners per nine innings than Zito (who permitted a shocking 13.15). But the only two left who don't have a job are Clemens and Pettitte (not counting Brad Radke, who is about to retire).
The only unemployed free-agent relievers who allowed fewer than 11 baserunners per nine innings are Russ Springer (9.96) and Darren Oliver (10.44).
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.