- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Every other week of every other year, the big names in beautiful downtown Indianapolis are Peyton Manning, Larry Bird and Helio Castroneves.
But not next week.
Next week, we can pretty much guarantee that the name uttered more than any other will be Mr. Roy Halladay, a man who has never run a no-huddle offense, launched a 3-pointer in the NBA finals or driven a motor vehicle 166 miles per hour in his life.
But none of that will be necessary next week, when baseball's winter meetings roll into Indy (at slightly under 166 mph). Oh, it's very possible, maybe even highly likely, that Halladay will still be a Blue Jay when those meetings end. But we'd bet you a "Hoosiers" DVD that he'll still be the most talked-about name in town.
He'll be far from the only name floating through that Indy ozone, though. So let's look ahead to the five biggest plotlines of the 2009 winter meetings:
For the sake of all of us who have to cover this monstrosity, it's mandatory that somebody has to emerge as the No. 1 Human Trade Rumor of every winter meetings.
The Blue Jays continue to insist they don't have to trade their ace. And that they haven't been ordered to move money. And that they don't feel any sense of urgency to trade him next week, next month or before the do-it-by-spring-training deadline tossed out there by Halladay's agents the other day.
Roy Halladay is eminently available. And he's available because the Blue Jays know they can't keep him from bolting out the free-agent escape hatch next winter. So "they should trade this guy and move on," said one longtime AL executive, "and get on with what they're going to be for the next couple of years -- which is a team that's rebuilding."
But it's easier to say than do. The Angels, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets all look to have some level of interest. And every once in a while, a Cubs rumor bounces through the industry. But here's why this is going to be tough to get done in the next week:
The price tag still seems higher than any of those teams want to pay for a player who's a year away from freedom. There are no indications Halladay is inclined to sign an extension instantly with whatever team deals for him. And the offseason is still young.
So remember two things, no matter how many juicy Halladay tidbits you hear next week: (1) He still holds every card in this deck, because he won't waive his no-trade clause for just any old team. And (2) the Santana and Peavy deals never did get done at the '07 and '08 winter meetings, hot and heavy as the yakking may have gotten.
The Santana trade took another seven weeks. The Peavy trade took another seven months. So it shouldn't shock you to hear that nearly every baseball man we surveyed predicts that Roy Halladay won't be dialing up American Van Lines before these meetings vroom past the checkered flag -- and he might never get traded at all.
Will the big three sign?
CC Sabathia hit the lottery at last year's winter meetings. K-Rod cashed in at last year's winter meetings. Raul Ibanez and Kerry Wood signed at last year's winter meetings. So The Big Free Agent Deal does go down at these meetings -- some years.
But 12 months later, the Neiman Marcus shop down at the old Free-Agent Galleria has only three large-ticket items in the display window -- Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey. And when we polled a dozen prominent baseball men this week, just two thought any of those three would sign by the end of the winter meetings.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, are the results of that poll:
Holliday is a Scott Boras client, so don't look for him to be signing in the next 15 minutes. But this does figure to be a week when the Cardinals -- a team intent on not letting this agent orchestrate their show -- determine if they're in or out. And if they're out, that would seem to leave only the Red Sox, Mets and maybe the Nationals as clubs interested in showering major, but not Mark Teixeira-esque dollars, on Holliday. Boras will work hard to drum up more business, but "I don't know where Scott goes with this one," said one AL exec, "to be able to create that big-market frenzied competition he's after."
It doesn't help Boras' quest that teams in the big-bopper market have Bay as a very attractive, marginally more affordable alternative. Other clubs view the Red Sox, for instance, as a team that has a slight preference for Holliday. But, as one exec put it, if Boras overplays his hand on the price tag (not that that would ever happen), the Red Sox can just "go sign Bay." Then again, that scenario would vanish if the Mariners make a preemptive strike and sign Bay before they even get to Indy.
Finally there's Lackey. Is he the most enticing starting pitcher in this market? You bet. But that doesn't make him CC or Johan reincarnate, either.
"I kind of look at him like a right-handed Andy Pettitte," said one NL exec. "They've got different makeups, obviously. But they both have that mental toughness and the ability to make a gutsy pitch in a big game when they have to. But he's looking for No. 1-type money. And in a good rotation, he's not a No. 1. He might be a No. 3, maybe a 2."
Well, all that's fine in theory. But in the real world, Lackey's a clear-cut No. 1 -- in this market. So all those skeptics who argue he can't possibly beat or even approach A.J. Burnett money (five years, $82.5 million) might have another think coming.
"I don't see any starting pitcher in this market who's going to pull Lackey down," said one exec. "There's no comparable pitcher to Lackey that would cause him to sign for, like, three years times $10 million. Somebody is going to give him close to what the established market is for upper-echelon starters." So who is that somebody? Don't bet against the Yankees.
Most likely to get traded
When the Cubs told Milton Bradley in September, after one too many tantrums, that it was time to just go home, we know lots of people who thought he seemed about as tradable as Jack the Ripper. But if that's a conclusion you jumped to, better jump again.
Bradley was the runaway winner of our Most Likely to Get Traded at the Winter Meetings poll. And why is that? Because Milton Bradley can hit, gang. It's that basic. He has a higher career on-base percentage (.371) than Grady Sizemore or Johnny Damon. And he has a higher career OPS (.821) than Torii Hunter or Ichiro. You can look it up.
So for a team like Tampa Bay, always hunting for big upside for manageable dollars, Bradley just might be worth a spin of the roulette wheel.
The Rangers could still get in on this, but Tampa Bay seems more likely. That's because the baseball pieces appear to fit in place a lot easier for this man to wind up with the Rays, in that much-rumored three-way deal that would send Pat Burrell to the Mets and Luis Castillo to the Cubs. (The Mets, incidentally, then would be likely to turn around and sign Orlando Hudson to replace Castillo.)
What these teams haven't been able to match up is the money pieces. Bradley has two years and about $22 million left on his I.O.U. sheet. Castillo has two years and $12 million coming. And Burrell has one more year, at $9 million.
So these teams, from all indications, continue to look for palatable ways for the Cubs and Mets to help even out the money. And while not much appears to have changed lately, Cubs officials have told other clubs they're "confident" Bradley will be an ex-Cubbie by the time they hit the on-ramp to I-65 on Thursday.
Free agent most likely to sign
It's Dec. 4, and exactly three of Keith Law's top 50 free agents have signed -- Placido Polanco (Phillies), Marco Scutaro (Red Sox) and Billy Wagner (Braves). So just the sheer force of offseason gravity tells us that some of these guys have to sign in the next week.
And which of them is most likely to sign? Well, our poll this week produced co-winners. But one of them (Scutaro) didn't even stay on the market long enough for this column to hit the site, let alone for the sport to hit Indianapolis.
So that leaves Mark DeRosa.
A week ago, DeRosa seemed as if he was headed for Philadelphia. But now that the Phillies have reeled in Polanco, he could wind up in a smorgasbord of places -- Cardinals, Cubs, Yankees, Orioles, Giants, Mets, etc. All those teams seem to view him in a slightly different role -- left field, second base, third base or super-utility multitasker. And for that reason, he remains as hot a commodity as any free agent out there.
Who's driving the market?
This wasn't a question anybody had to ask last December. The Yankees weren't just driving the free-agent market last winter. They were the market. And CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira were darned happy about it, too. To refresh your memory:
Free-agent dollars committed by the Yankees: $441 million. Free-agent dollars committed by the other 13 AL teams combined: $176.28 million.
But where are the big market-setting free-agent bucks coming from this winter -- starting with these meetings next week? Good question.
"Last year," said an official of one AL team, "you had the New York Yankees desperate to make an impact. But this year, the Yankees are not desperate. And the Red Sox are not desperate. So I don't know who else is desperate, unless it's the Mets."
Well, the Mets may know the meaning of "desperate" without clicking on dictionary.com. But they're not $441 million kind of desperate. So when we asked the poll question -- "What team will hand out the biggest contract of the winter?" -- the Mets were one of five clubs that got votes. Here's the rundown:
• MARINERS -- Always watch out for the team that just lopped the most money off its books. And this winter, that's the Mariners, who waved sayonara to nearly $50 million in departing contracts. So that explains why you've seen them connected with just about every high-profile free agent, from Bay to Lackey to Figgins to Rich Harden. "They're very well-funded," said the same AL official quoted earlier. "They want to win. Ichiro is getting older. They've got to show Felix Hernandez they're serious about winning. So this is the year they'll really try to spend money."
• RED SOX -- Everyone who voted for the Red Sox voted with this premise: They're the team most likely to sign Matt Holliday. Hence, they're the team most likely to dole out the biggest contract. And since they're also shopping for a starting pitching and just added Scutaro, they're a great bet to lay out the most total dollars.
• CARDINALS -- They won't be market-setters. But they're still motivated to bring back Holliday. And they sure can't do that at Skip Schumaker prices. "I still think they end up signing Holliday," said one AL exec. "If they do, it won't be a huge, huge deal. But it will still be the biggest deal of the year."
• METS -- No one is exactly certain how much they have to spend. But no team has more motivation to get back on the radar screen, and back into contention, than the Mets do. So if they get Holliday, Figgins and/or Lackey to take their money, and if they also sign a catcher, first baseman and second baseman, it will be tough for any team to out-checkbook that.
• YANKEES -- They got only one vote. And it was mostly just a force-of-habit type of vote. But it was also a vote that recognized an important fact of baseball life: No matter how quiet the Yankees seem, no matter how hard they try to convince you they're not likely to sign any marquee names, you should never be too sure of that, for one simple reason: They're still the Yankees.
We know we've just scratched the surface of winter-meetings storylines. But we have a whole week to spin the rest of them. So get your laptops out and your clickers ready. Now gentlemen, start your trade rumors.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Will Roy Halladay be traded? Will Bay, Holliday or Lackey sign? Those are among the top five plotlines heading into next week's winter meetings.