- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Most baseball hot stove-ologists expected events to unfold in an orderly sequence this offseason. First, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers would make their pilgrimages to Little Rock, Ark., and ramp up the competition for free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee. Then, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels would start throwing around big offers for the elite hitters. Once Lee and outfielders Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth came off the board, it made sense that the other "dominoes" would eventually fall.
As the past two weeks have shown, there's always room for detours to the conventional wisdom. We're in an environment where the previously unthinkable is now plausible, and you never know when the storylines will shift.
Major League Baseball's general managers meetings broke up Thursday with a sense of drama and anticipation emanating from some unexpected places. New York, for example. Derek Jeter's negotiations with the Yankees have assumed a testy undertone, and if he's looking for a deal that's going to take him to age 40 or beyond, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner might have to keep insisting that things are "not personal" just to keep the temperature reasonably low.
Lots of people figured the Tampa Bay Rays would spend this winter exploring trades for outfielder B.J. Upton, whose stock has dropped markedly after back-to-back disappointing seasons. Instead, all the attention is focused on his younger brother Justin, who is inspiring an Internet-base trade mania now that Arizona GM Kevin Towers has confirmed that his name is in play.
"It's become a bigger story because it was completely unexpected," Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall said from the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando. "It caught on quickly, spread like wildfire, and as a result, more teams have gotten involved in the sweepstakes. It's taken on a life of its own, and more teams have jumped on board."
Towers, understandably, is looking for a monster package in exchange for Upton, who is regarded as an organizational cornerstone at age 23. Are the Diamondbacks concerned that Upton's relationship with the team will be strained if they don't deal him this winter and he's back in Arizona in spring training?
"You never like to see names get out there, because the players then wonder what their future is," Hall said. "But if we don't move Justin, I think we'll be able to patch it up quickly. He's a great kid, and he knows we absolutely love him, so I'm not worried. We explained to him that we owe it to ourselves to listen on any and every player. It doesn't necessarily mean we're going to move him."
As the winter's big storylines continue to unfold, there's been no shortage of activity since the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. Some teams are working with Mark Buehrle-like efficiency to plug holes and rework their rosters.
Two of the main Plan B starting pitching options after Lee already have found employment. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $12 million contract, and St. Louis reached agreement on a two-year deal with Jake Westbrook on Tuesday. Westbrook is fresh off his fourth career 200-inning season, and it wouldn't have surprised anyone if he landed a deal somewhere between Joe Blanton and Randy Wolf (i.e., three years at $9 million annually). Instead, Westbrook signed for two years and $16.5 million to remain in St. Louis and continue on the Dave Duncan ground-ball assistance program.
"Jake had a strong desire to be in St. Louis, and that really helped perpetuate where we were," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. "When you look at how the [pitching] market could unfold, I think he could have had a three-year deal if he chose."
The Oakland A's also have made some waves in the early going. They acquired outfielder David DeJesus from Kansas City for pitcher Vin Mazzaro, acquired the negotiating rights to Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and traded outfielder Rajai Davis to Toronto. They've also been linked to numerous free-agent hitters, most notably third baseman Adrian Beltre and DH Lance Berkman, in the quest to add pop to an offense that ranked 13th in the American League with 109 home runs.
No team has made a bigger early splash than the Florida Marlins, who've made several moves to reshape the look of their team, for better or worse. In the span of six days the Marlins:
• Traded outfielder Cameron Maybin to San Diego and dealt pitcher Andrew Miller to Boston. Those two players were at the core of the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera from Florida to Detroit in December 2007.
• Sent All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla to Atlanta for utility man Omar Infante and lefty reliever Mike Dunn. The Marlins made the decision only after it became clear the team wasn't going to be able to sign Uggla to a long-term contract.
• Signed free-agent catcher John Buck to a three-year, $18 million deal. Buck, who hit 20 homers in Toronto this season, has a career .301 on-base percentage. But the Marlins focused on his leadership skills, durability, game-calling ability and experience and made him an early free-agent target. "When we looked at the whole package, it made sense to us," said Larry Beinfest, the Marlins' president of baseball operations.
The moves are part of a multipronged offseason agenda for Florida. The Marlins wanted to upgrade a bullpen that went 17-25 with a 4.01 ERA and a National League-high 25 blown saves, and they think they achieved that goal with the addition of Dunn and San Diego relievers Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica. They're hoping that Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez will help pick up the slack left by Uggla's departure, and they envision a lineup that's a little less reliant on the home run ball than in years past.
The Marlins have some history with acting aggressively in the offseason. Two years ago, they sent Mike Jacobs to Kansas City for Leo Nunez, traded Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen to Washington in a deal for infielder Emilio Bonifacio and traded reliever Kevin Gregg to the Chicago Cubs by mid-November.
"If we have the month of October to plan, we use it. Then when things open up, we're gonna go," Beinfest said. "This is a change for us, and I think our fans are saying, 'This is a lot of stuff in a short period of time.' But there's a method to the madness."
Although some teams are more aggressive than others, the same applies to agents. Seth and Sam Levinson's group, ACES, negotiated multiyear contracts for Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta with Detroit in October, and has since completed Buck's deal and a three-year, $16.5 million contract for free-agent reliever Joaquin Benoit with the Tigers.
The Levinson brothers also represent starter Javier Vazquez, reliever Grant Balfour and several other players who might merit watching in the next couple of weeks. As ESPN.com's Jayson Stark has reported, Florida is a potential landing place for both Carl Pavano and Vazquez, who could benefit from a return to the National League after a rough season in New York with the Yankees.
"I think it's reasonable to say a starting pitcher would be a good add for this team," Beinfest said without identifying specific pitching targets.
If you believe what you read, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles and some other losing clubs have quietly been active in trolling the market this offseason. The relatively weak free-agent crop -- and the fear of overpaying for mediocre talent -- could prompt lots of teams to pursue trades first before diving headfirst into the free-agent pool.
In one of the big early surprises, agent Scott Boras arrived in Orlando with his coterie of assistants, quietly did his business and left town without meeting the media to extol the virtues of his big-name free agents -- Werth, Beltre, Manny Ramirez and closer Rafael Soriano. The industry will reassemble in nearby Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for the winter meetings in three weeks, so that annual hot stove ritual will have to wait until early December.