- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Theoretically, the winter meetings haven't even started yet. Yeah, sure they haven't.
Before half the luminaries in baseball had even slalomed their way through Goofy, Pluto and the rest of the standard Disney World cast on their way to the front desk, the early arrivals were already reeling from the news of the day:
NATIONALS SIGN JAYSON WERTH
ADRIAN GONZALEZ DEAL OFF -- THEN ON AGAIN
So technically, the winter meetings don't start until Monday. But what happened Sunday will send tremors through everything else that develops at these meetings over the next four days. How can it not?
You don't think Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee, the other $100 million free agents in waiting, heard their cash registers ringing Sunday when they found out Werth had just reeled in 126 million bucks from a franchise about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its last postseason game?
"This raises the price on Crawford in a big, big way," said an official of one AL team. "He's looking at maybe eight years, $180 million now, maybe 10 years, $190 million."
But the ripple effects go way beyond him -- to the Red Sox's next move, to the Angels, to the Phillies, to all those teams with so much work yet to be done. So let's take a look at the next big wave of winter meetings plotlines:
Will Crawford, Lee and Beltre sign?
Last year at this time, precisely three names on Keith Law's top 50 free agent list had signed heading into the winter meetings. This winter, it's a very different deal (literally).
Werth was the 19th player in this year's top 50 to either sign, agree or accept arbitration. And that includes five of the top 10, 10 of the top 20 and 14 of the top 35.
So people in the game expect lots more where that came from this week. But will any of those signings feature one of the three biggest names left on the marquee -- Lee, Crawford or Adrian Beltre? We did our annual What Day Will They Sign survey of a dozen prominent baseball men. And before we present the results, just keep in mind that the average date this same group predicted Werth would sign was Dec. 28:
SIGN HERE, PLEASE
Now the predictions on Werth were very similar to the predictions for Beltre. And guess what they have in common? They're Scott Boras clients, of course. And normally, not only is Boras never in a hurry to get his free agents employed, he's so oblivious to the calendar that we got four nominations for Werth and Beltre to sign on Christmas Eve. ("Scott likes to screw up the holidays," quipped one AL executive.)
But just because Werth has already done his deal doesn't mean Beltre's negotiations also will veer off the customary Boras-free-agent path. In fact, the one team that was all-in on him early -- the A's -- appears to have zapped its reported five-year, $64 million offer off the bargaining table.
And now that the Red Sox have traded for Gonzalez, Beltre won't be showing up on their 2011 blueprint, either. So is he going to jump into the arms of the Orioles? We're guessing not -- not without waiting a long, long time for something else to develop, anyway. So he could be out there long after he carts the Christmas tree out to the dumpster.
Meanwhile, in the other two rings beneath this Free Agent Big Top, Lee and Crawford are poised to generate their own 100-million-point headlines.
We can't find anybody who doesn't expect the Lee auction to come down to the Yankees and Rangers. And if this is, in fact, an auction, face it: Bodog would already have this game off the board.
As one Rangers official told us this winter, "If it's a matter of who throws the most money on the table, he'll be a Yankee." For now, the Texans are still telling themselves Lee will factor more than dollar bills into his decision. But ask yourself this: Do the Yankees EVER get outbid when they target a player like Lee? Right. Never. So no wonder that team is so confident.
Sources are still indicating that neither team has made a formal offer yet. And one of those sources predicted Sunday that Lee's deal "will take three days at the winter meetings" -- meaning it would be resolved, if all goes smoothly, by the end of the week.
But the Crawford bidding gets more fun-filled by the day. His price just exploded, but who's going to pay it?
He's the clear No. 1 target of the Angels. That hasn't changed. But they've traditionally been reluctant to do anything even close to an eight-year deal, let alone a 10-year deal.
The Red Sox have a bigger need for Crawford than ever, with Werth off the board. And they did just fly their manager and GM out to see him. But this regime has never done a deal longer than six years -- and they still have a potential monster contract with Gonzalez to contemplate.
The Rangers and Tigers remain in this hunt. And now the Yankees are also stirring this stew, even though, theoretically, there's no room for both Crawford AND Lee in their budget. But at times like this, other teams always laugh and remind us why we should never accept "theories" like that at face value:
Because THEY'RE THE YANKEES.
So one big plotline to watch this week is whether the Angels try to pull off one of their inimitable quick strikes on Crawford -- in an attempt to keep themselves out of a bid-off against the New York-Boston behemoths (assuming it isn't already too late).
"When Arte wants something, he usually wants to get it done NOW," said one baseball man who has done a lot of business with Angels owner Arte Moreno. "Arte is not somebody who wants to see his money shopped."
And Moreno is still mucho caliente over losing Mark Teixeira to the Yankees two winters ago, without ever being allowed to re-bid. So the betting is that he won't let that scenario play out again.
Somebody has to emerge as the Human Trade Rumor of every winter meetings. That's mandatory. We think it's actually written in the fine print when folks sign up for Rumor Central. The question this year, as always, is: Whom?
Once, we thought Adrian Gonzalez might assume that mantle for these meetings, but no one knows what to make of that storyline at the moment. And there was a time when Prince Fielder seemed like a great nominee himself. But when we polled a dozen baseball people on which player was most likely to keep us professional rumor investigators busy this week, you know who won in a landslide?
The Royals' ace got nine of the 12 votes. And that's a surprise, because it's doubtful he would have dominated this poll three weeks ago.
Back then, the sticker price was extremely high (as in four sure-thing impact prospects, at least one of whom had to project as The Next Zack Greinke). And the Royals were viewed as having no sense of urgency to pull the trigger.
But there seems to have been a subtle shift in how other teams look at this scene all of a sudden. For one thing, the free-agent starting pitcher market -- once you get past Lee and Carl Pavano -- is a wasteland. So in a world in which everybody needs difference-making starting pitching, the law of supply and demand has clearly tilted in the Royals' favor. But that's not all that's changed.
"My sense," said an official of one AL team, "is that Greinke has been trying to convince the Royals that it's not a great idea if he's there next year. And I think that's pushed this to another level."
Suddenly, there has been an explosion of hints, leaks and off-the-record quotes, suggesting Greinke has never been more ready to get out. But if his little campaign has dented the Royals' consciousness, it's been tough to detect.
The Royals continue to tell teams the price hasn't dropped -- and they feel no pressure whatsoever to move a guy who can't be a free agent for two more seasons. So, yeah, they might move him. But it could be next July. It could be next December. It could be July 31, 2012.
Or it could also be never -- if they actually get good before Greinke's free-agent clock ticks down to zero and think they have a shot to persuade him to stay.
Nevertheless, we advise you to kick back and see where this story goes this week. GM Dayton Moore's suite should be a more popular destination than Space Mountain. Plus, once Lee signs, the team that loses out on him isn't going to be happy. And if that team happens to be loaded with hot prospects, well, wouldn't that be convenient?
In other words, said the same official quoted earlier, "Texas is the obvious place."
Justin Upton is 23 years old. He was once the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He's made an All-Star team. He's signed through 2015. So who the heck would trade a guy like this?
Then again, even more to this point, who would actually give up what it's going to take to trade for a guy like this?
Well, the Diamondbacks -- and new GM Kevin Towers -- would be the answer to the first question. But even Towers believes the answer to the second question is going to turn out to be nobody.
"It's going to take somebody a little on the crazy side," Towers admitted, in another burst of the refreshing honesty he's so world-famous for.
This is one of those rare occasions when we haven't needed a Baseball WikiLeaks to learn that a huge name in this sport is available. For once, we have a GM who isn't afraid to say publicly he'll listen to offers on a player with off-the-chart tools.
But Towers also has made it clear these prices are insane. This could be a 3-for-1, 4-for-1 or even 5-for-1 deal. And at the center of it, what the Diamondbacks want back, he says, is "two Justin Uptons" -- just younger versions, of course -- plus other stuff.
It's so rare to find a player like this on the market that it's inspired two dozen teams -- yeah, two dozen -- to at least visit the showroom. But no more than three or four of them -- the Rangers, Red Sox, Yankees and maybe the Mariners -- match up. And indications are that no team has pursued this aggressively since the D-backs started the bidding at the GM meetings. So Upton is likely to stay put. But that could change this week.
"By the time we leave Orlando," Towers said, "we should have a good idea where we stand on this."
Most likely to get traded this week
This is another question we throw out there in our winter meetings poll every year. Invariably, the name that floats to the top of the Most Likely to Get Traded pool isn't a name people outside the game would expect.
Well, this year was no different. Ladies and gentlemen, the trade candidate voted most likely to call North American Van Lines by the end of the week is
The Rays' shortstop may not possess as juicy a name as, say, "Prince." And not very long ago, Bartlett wouldn't even have been looked at as the most likely guy on his own team to get traded. (Matt Garza and B.J. Upton are among the Rays who have spent much more time bouncing around Rumor Central over the past six months.)
But the Rays have reached a point where their payroll is plunging, Reid Brignac is ready to play shortstop every day, just about every reliever on their postseason roster is a free agent and Bartlett is a year away from free agency. So
He's about as eminently available as any front-line, winning player in baseball.
But is he actually going to get traded next week? We're not as sure of that as the people we polled.
The Giants (Miguel Tejada) and Cardinals (Ryan Theriot) have filled their shortstop vacancies. The Twins decided against non-tendering a comparable player, in J.J. Hardy. So that leaves only the Padres, Orioles, Pirates and Indians looking for shortstops -- with Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Cesar Izturis still available on the free-agent market.
Teams that have spoken with the Rays say they'd like to get a late-innings bullpen arm in return. But the Orioles don't have a closer themselves and balked at a David Hernandez-for-Bartlett swap last month. A Heath Bell-for-Bartlett deal is a long shot in San Diego. The Indians wouldn't want a $5 million rental at shortstop. And the Pirates wouldn't seem likely to give up someone like Joel Hanrahan for a player they could control for only a year. So while it's possible one of these deals comes together this week, it's also possible this could take a while.
What else to watch for
Other winter meetings plotlines waiting to explode:
• Sox appeal: Splash Mountain was a piece of cake compared to the roller coaster the Red Sox rode Sunday. When they woke up, they seemed to be on the verge of connecting every dot. Then their deal for Gonzalez died -- and roared back to life. But even with that out of the way, they need to figure out where to find another middle-of-the-order masher now that Werth is no longer on the menu. (Upton? Josh Willingham maybe?) They're still a team with big ambitions and big dollars to spend. But this isn't going to be as simple as it looked before the Nationals' money truck backed up at Werth's house. Is it?
• Phil-ins: Now that the Phillies know -- absolutely, for sure -- that Werth isn't coming back, it's officially time to move on to Plan B. But teams and agents that have spoken to them say they've given no indication they're in the market for a right-handed bat anywhere near as big as Werth's. In fact, the description we've heard over and over to describe what they're looking for is a "complementary bat." That could mean Jeff Francoeur. That could mean Scott Hairston, whose appeal is that he can play some center field. That could possibly mean Matt Diaz. But they've also been trying to trade Raul Ibanez without eating too much of the $11.5 million he has coming next year. That's highly unlikely. But if they find a taker this week, their entire game plan would change.
• Pujols' contract: Albert Pujols can't be a free agent for a year, but the stage is set for the Cardinals and his agent, Dan Lozano, to chat this week.
• Fresh Prince: Like Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder is a first-base masher who has one year left 'til free agency. Unlike Gonzalez, though, he's a Scott Boras client who won't be interested in any sign-and-trade extensions. So the Brewers are well aware the Fresh Prince will be much tougher to deal than Gonzalez, especially if they continue to ask for an impact arm in return. But the White Sox checked in before signing Adam Dunn. And they're not the only tire-kickers out there. So the Brewers are all ears.
• Land of the free: Among the free agents who got votes in our Most Likely to Sign This Week poll: Pavano, Miguel Olivo, J.J. Putz, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and guys named Lee and Beltre. Also out there are all these compelling attractions: Rafael Soriano, Paul Konerko, Lance Berkman, Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.
• In heavy trading: All these guys got votes in the Most Likely to Get Traded This Week balloting: Bell, Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Willingham, Brendan Ryan, Mark Reynolds and Mike Napoli. In an offseason in which the free-agent difference-makers are flying off the board faster than they have in years, the potential is there for a fun week of trade rumor mongering. Let's just hope no one makes a multiplayer deal involving Huey, Dewey and Louie by mistake.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest 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.
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