Trade talks to heat up Winter Meetings
Cabrera, Santana sweepstakes expected to dominate event
Baseball's movers and shakers and marketers have been flocking to a designated offseason Mecca in the first week of many Decembers.They gather at the Winter Meetings to kick some tires, weather sticker-shock and raise some headlines and hopes. It is a year-after-year routine, even in the way the annual conclave can spur blockbuster deals and monster contracts. Yet this year's conventioneers will check into Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center amid extraordinary anticipation, and the buzz could be deafening by the time the proverbial bell is rung Monday morning to bring the Meetings to order. Guess that's what happens when you put the sport's top pitcher and one of its best young players into a symbolic showcase in the lobby. Indeed, it figures to be Johan Santana's week, as the exceptional left-hander is bartered by a Minnesota club which can't afford him should he become a free agent following the 2008 season. And not far behind will be Miguel Cabrera, the third base prodigy made available by Florida for similar reasons. You truly can't tell the players without an atlas. While Venezuela's Santana and Cabrera will dominate trade talk, prospective émigrés from Japan are among the most-sought free agents. Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome and right-hander Hiroki Kuroda are being courted by several teams to join countrymen who already signed Major League contracts within the last month, relievers Yasuhiko Yabuta with the Royals and Masa Kobayashi with the Indians. Santana and Cabrera are above the title on a marquee crowded by names swirling in a trading pool in which general managers are expected to seek refuge from a generally parched free-agent terrain. True, enough big names are still on the free-agent scrolls to tempt the GMs. With only 24 of the 148 players to originally file for free agency having entered into new contracts, plenty of options remain for filling holes. Free agents whose names will be dropped all over Opryland include outfielders Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand and Mike Cameron; 2006 World Series MVP shortstop David Eckstein; third baseman Pedro Feliz; catchers Paul Lo Duca and Mike Piazza; starting pitchers Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse; and relievers Eric Gagne and Octavio Dotel.
However, agents will not be the stars of these Meetings, as they have tended to be in recent years.Rather, the most popular man figures to be Minnesota GM Bill Smith, with Marlins officials, led by club baseball operations president Larry Beinfest and GM Michael Hill, not far behind. The furor over Santana is understandable. It is extremely rare to find arguably the game's best pitcher on the open market while he is still in his 20s. The circumstances encourage Smith to seek converting Santana into a cache of young, talented players through a trade. If a deal is struck, Santana, whose existing pact includes no-trade rights, is expected to be given a 72-hour window to negotiate the fourth nine-figure pitcher's contract ever with his potential new team. There is no assurance that point will be reached during the four days of the Winter Meetings. But it is interesting to note that the nine-figure barrier was first broken under the same roof, when Kevin Brown emerged from the 1998 Winter Meetings in Nashville with his seven-year, $105 deal with the Dodgers. Two years later, Mike Hampton signed with Colorado for eight years and $121 million. Late last December, Barry Zito and the Giants struck a seven-year, $126 million deal. Brown cashed in at 33, but Hampton and Zito both were 28 when they made their deals. As a position player, the prodigious Cabrera -- a career .313 hitter with 138 homers and 523 RBIs before his 25th birthday -- is regarded as a safer bet. Knowing that prompts the Marlins to drive a harder bargain, particularly with so many teams competing to fill holes at the hot corner. Led by the two Los Angeles clubs, they also include the Phillies and the Giants -- with the White Sox, Orioles and Cardinals in the wings. Those last three clubs have incumbent third baseman. However, responding to the market, they might explore trades of Joe Crede, Melvin Mora and Scott Rolen, respectively, further clogging the counters. Also remaining hot is the clamor for center fielders, even with the biggest chip, Torii Hunter, having already earned his Angels' wings. Rowand and Jones top the new lists of clubs with vacancies in the middle of their outfields: San Diego, Texas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, the Chicago White Sox and, of course, Minnesota. The Winter Meetings will also afford a stage for the national bows of the game's eight new managers. They include two first-time skippers -- the Pirates' John Russell and the Royals' Trey Hillman -- and three others appointed in mid-2007 approaching their first full seasons on the job -- the Orioles' Dave Trembley, the Astros' Cecil Cooper and the Mariners' John McLaren.
Back in the saddle following one-season sabbaticals in the TV booth are Dusty Baker, the former All-Star outfielder who is a veteran of 14 seasons in the dugout and takes over the Reds, and the Yankees' Joe Girardi, who earned the 2006 NL Manager of the Year Award as a rookie skipper with the Marlins.Back, but doing business at a completely new location, is Joe Torre, the lionized former Yankees manager now assigned with turning the Dodgers into his personal 13th consecutive playoff team.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.