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Thursday, December 6, 2012
Baseball goes zero for Nashville?

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Zack Greinke didn't sign. But Joe Blanton did.

Josh Hamilton didn't sign. But Jeff Keppinger did.

Justin Upton never got traded. But Ben Revere did.

James Shields and Asdrubal Cabrera never got dealt, either. But ... well, stay tuned.

So what we had here was a very strange winter meetings. All the big stuff we talked about all week? None of that ever did go down. But here's the moral of that story:

You should never judge the winter meetings by the volume in the old transactions column. You can say, accurately, that the big deals never got done. But to say nothing "happened" at these meetings? "That," said Arizona GM Kevin Towers, "would be incorrect."

There's a difference, said another GM, between "shopping" and "buying." It's a distinction your wife could probably explain in remarkable detail. But that's what just unfolded in Nashville: "It was shopping," the same GM said. "Not buying."

But the buying spree is coming. And soon. The consensus of baseball people we surveyed Thursday is that once Greinke picks a destination, the groundwork has been laid for an avalanche of moves, which his signing alone might trigger, in the next week or so.

So normally in this space, you'd be reading a column that rates the meetings' Winners and Losers. But not this year -- too much unfinished business, too many report cards stamped "incomplete." So let's just look back at what "happened" this week, even if some of those happenings never did make it into a transactions column near you.

Greinke: A mere week ago, we polled 15 executives, scouts and agents on where Greinke would sign -- and 14 of them picked the Dodgers. But a week later, that doesn't feel like such a sure thing anymore.

The buzz over the last 24 to 48 hours was all about Texas, not L.A., as the Rangers began to contemplate a strategy that revolved around signing Greinke and trading for a bat (Justin Upton, anybody?), instead of signing Hamilton and trading for another starting pitcher.

By the end of these meetings, people within the sport were describing the Dodgers as frustrated and confused by the direction the Greinke negotiations were taking. The Rangers, on the other hand, remained all in, even as the asking price appeared to keep rising, even as a third bidder, the Angels, were looking at that sticker and saying, "No thanks."

An official of one club said the vibe is that Greinke and his agent, Casey Close, were mysteriously keeping the Dodgers "out of arm's reach," as if they were stalling for time to give the Rangers a shot to meet what just might be a record demand for any pitcher. Greinke and Close continue to set this pace, as those two teams await further instructions. But it feels as if this could go down at any time.
Josh Hamilton
Who Josh Hamilton plays for next remains to be seen.
Hamilton: In that same survey a week ago, it was also nearly unanimous that Hamilton would end up right back in Texas, from whence he came. But years and dollars were the hang-up a week ago. And, from all indications, they're still the hang-up.

For all the talk that these two sides were headed for a four-year, $108 million deal this week, a variety of baseball people who spoke with the Rangers paint a very different scenario.

They portray Hamilton and his agent, Michael Moye, as still holding out for a six-year or seven-year contract, in the neighborhood of $25 million a year. And those same folks are theorizing that Moye and Hamilton are finding it very difficult to jump at a shorter deal, for a lot fewer total dollars than marquee free agents have been used to commanding in recent years, especially in an $8 billion industry.

The problem they face is this: If they wait around much longer, the Rangers are growing increasingly likely to turn the wheel and go flying down the Greinke/Upton Freeway. And if they do, who knows where that would leave Hamilton.

Despite all the Seattle rumors -- and "Seattle, to me, makes total sense," said an official of one club -- this landscape could turn wide open if the Rangers invest their big bucks in Greinke instead of their one-time MVP.

"Right now," said one AL executive, "you've got a lot of teams laying back, almost assuming that Hamilton was going back to Texas. If, all of a sudden, they sense the Rangers are out, it changes that market completely. And you could have quite a few teams jumping in, thinking they might be able to get Josh Hamilton on a three-year deal. I'm not sure they're right. But if Texas is out, it changes everything."

Three-team, Four-team and Five-team Roulette: Three-, four- and five-team trades might be routine in your fantasy league. But in real-life baseball, they're harder to pull off than an unassisted triple play.

Nevertheless, this time, one of these multi-team blockbusters very well could happen. It just depends on whether teams like the Diamondbacks, Indians, Rangers, Rays, Royals, Mariners and other clubs decide it's time to connect all the dots they laid out in massive conversations this week, about a trade that could include Upton, Cabrera, Shields and many other names, big and small.
Asdrubal Cabrera
Asdrubal Cabrera can wonder who will take a swing at trading for him.
Asked Thursday morning if he could give a sense of how hard his team worked on a mega-deal that may or may not happen, a bleary-eyed Towers replied: "I can't speak for the other 29 clubs. But I can speak for about four or five, that I spent more time with than my people. I feel like I KNOW them better than my people. So we went from 8 o'clock in the morning to 3 in the morning (every day). Actually, I was with three clubs last night until 6:30 in the morning."

But for all that hard work, it's unlikely this deal -- or any combination of related deals -- can actually happen until Greinke decides where he's going, and the Rangers decide what they're trading for, and all the other pieces fall into place. So this extravaganza may not have happened yet, but this is one time it wouldn't shock anyone in this sport if it actually did.

The Red Sox: Two years ago at these meetings, this team invested about a quarter-billion dollars in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. And how'd that work out?

So while the general consensus was that the Red Sox overpaid this week for Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, let's remember something: They had plenty of money to spend, a slew of holes to fill and limited options to shop for.

So the money they spent inflicts no restrictions on their ability to maneuver down the road. They "get a good grade for preserving their payroll flexibility," said one AL exec. And all that matters now -- to them, at least -- is whether Napoli, Victorino, Jonny Gomes can play, not whether they're overpaid.

The Giants: Two years ago, the Giants won the World Series and made major changes in their cast. This year, they won another World Series and were willing to pay out extra years and dollars to keep their band together.

Four years and $40 million for Angel Pagan? Three years and $20 million for 37-year-old Marco Scutaro? Those were price tags that had lots of people in baseball shaking their heads. But the Giants have always constructed their team with a different playbook than the rest of the sport. So this is nothing new.

"They like knowing who they have," said one NL exec. "It's important to them. They probably overpaid for both of those guys. But familiarity is important to them. So it's all relative."

The Phillies: When Pagan, B.J. Upton and Denard Span disappeared from their menu, the Phillies looked as if they might have no choice but to pay Michael Bourn the $90 million or so he's been looking for. And when the Kevin Youkilis bidding reached $12 million a year this week, they looked as if they might get stuck with a Kevin Frandsen/Freddy Galvis third-base platoon.
Ben Revere
Phillies fans are ready to watch Ben Revere on his horse in center.
Then, suddenly, on the final morning of the meetings, the Phillies struck. Twice. One trade brought them Web Gem machine Ben Revere from Minnesota to take over center field. And sources indicate they essentially have a second trade in place with Texas that would install Michael Young as their new third baseman, as long as Young waives his trade-veto rights (which is far from a done deal).

Revere, who has never homered in 1,064 career big-league plate appearances, had a .333 on-base percentage and .675 OPS last season. So he's not exactly a perfect top-of-the-order solution. And Young is 36, a below-average defender and coming off the worst offensive season of his career.

But these deals got surprisingly upbeat reviews from rival execs, if only because the Phillies' alternatives seemed so much worse. Revere, said one NL exec, "is better than Bourn, hungrier and so much cheaper, he gives them the freedom to do some other things."

And if the Rangers, as expected, pay a significant chunk of the $16 million Young has coming in the final year of his contract, one AL exec called him "still a better buy than (Kevin) Youkilis. And a great leader."

Whether Young says yes or not, the Phillies still have to fill gaping holes in their bullpen and right field. And by trading Vance Worley in the Revere deal, they also need to shop for a fourth starter. But by doing what they did, and avoiding just writing big checks to solve their issues, they at least have vastly more payroll flexibility to address those needs.

Angels: This wasn't the game plan the Angels had in mind when they traded for Greinke last July. They were determined back then to re-sign him, and Greinke is said to have sent signals, even before that deal, that he was very interested in sticking around.

But that was before the cost of re-signing him went all Nieman Marcus on them. So the Angels made a call, by early in the week, that it was time to move on and address multiple needs instead of sinking all their dollars into one very expensive right arm.

The upshot: A week and a half after trading non-tender candidate Jordan Walden for Tommy Hanson, they signed Joe Blanton this week for two years and $15 million. And less than two weeks after signing Ryan Madson to be their closer, they signed one of the best left-handed relievers on this market, Sean Burnett, for two years and $8 million.

Rival execs we surveyed praised their financial restraint in not forking over $160 million or so to Greinke. But in the end, is their team any better? There wasn't much sentiment that it was.

"When you're talking about Hanson and Blanton, I think you're talking about a collection of parts that's going the wrong way," said one NL exec. "There's no way Atlanta gives up on Hanson unless there's something wrong. He's going in reverse, I think. And giving two years to Blanton, I don't get that at all."

Rays: This team's biggest move, its most important move, is yet to come. Other clubs have no doubt the Rays WILL trade one of their starters, probably within the next couple of weeks. And only then will we really be able to judge their winter's work.

But for now, what they've done is sign James Loney to be their new first baseman (though probably not a seven-day-a-week first baseman) and trade for the talented, but perpetually troubled, Yunel Escobar to hold down shortstop. And even though both make very little money, they were tough guys for other clubs to work up much enthusiasm for.

"Wow. Go get 'em, Joe Maddon," quipped an exec of one club. "He'd better have some of that renaissance magic working. You're talking about one guy (Escobar) with makeup issues. And the other guy isn't what they're looking for, power-wise, at first base. So Joe had better have either a little magic or a lot of wine. But luckily, he likes plenty of both."