- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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DALLAS -- It's never just another week on the baseball calendar when the winter meetings pass through Dallas. And y'all can look that up.
It was here, in 2000, that Alex Rodriguez became the first $252 million man in history. It was here, that very same week, that the Red Sox began their beautiful relationship with the Artist Formerly Known as Manny Ramirez.
It was on a visit to Dallas that the Rockies thought that showering Mike Hampton with $121 million would be an excellent idea. And wouldn't you know that five years later, it was right back in exactly this same spot that the Blue Jays had the same thought about bestowing $55 million on A.J. Burnett AND $47 million on B.J. Ryan.
So who knows what's coming this week, deep in the heart of the sprawling, ornate Hilton Anatole hotel? Can Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder possibly out-earn A-Rod and Manny? Will C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle be this year's Mike Hampton or A.J. Burnett?
Can Jose Reyes sprint from Queens to Miami, via the Metroplex, this week without popping a hamstring? Is a six-team deal involving Matt Garza, Gio Gonzalez, Wandy Rodriguez, John Danks, Jair Jurrjens and James Shields out of the question?
Hey, you never know. But you can bet some sort of craziness is in store. So let's take a look ahead at what we might see at the latest, greatest Dallas edition of the winter meetings:
Will the big boys sign?
We're a month into free agency, but you'd never know it. Not one of Keith Law's top 17 free agents has signed on anyone's dotted line. But clearly, that's about to change -- possibly any minute. So we now present the results of our annual What Day Will They Sign survey of 14 prominent executives and agents:
First off, what's that asterisk doing there next to that Prince Fielder prediction? Glad you asked. One GM forecast, mostly (but not completely) tongue-in-cheek, that Prince would sign "on Super Bowl Sunday -- probably at halftime." So there's an asterisk there because that date alone doesn't tell the whole story. And we're all about the big picture here.
That date also doesn't tell us WHERE Fielder is going to sign, just that many people think he and Scott Boras are going to have a lonnnngggg wait ahead of them if they're intent on nailing that eight-year, $200 million bonanza they've been looking for.
"I think Scott might be in trouble on this one," said one GM. "I know he always pulls a rabbit out of his hat, but I don't see a great fit at that money."
We heard predictions about Fielder ending up in Seattle, Washington and the North Side of Chicago. But if the sticker price drops enough, it's no longer insane to think there's a chance Fielder lands back in Milwaukee. And who thought that was remotely possible a month ago?
Pujols, on the other hand, seems more likely than ever to head back to St. Louis. Not one person we surveyed predicted otherwise, although an official of one club did say: "Sometimes, I get the feeling the Cardinals are hoping that some team out of their division will make an offer big enough that they will be able to justify not bringing him back."
Could be. But who is that team? That's the question. The Marlins may have offered Pujols nine years, but not at enough dollars to inspire Pujols to say yes or the Cardinals to cut the cord. And that Marlins offer could also disappear in the snap of Jeffrey Loria's fingers if the Fish can get Reyes signed.
After all, no matter how intrigued the Marlins may be by Pujols, it's clear they've had their checkbooks trained on Reyes from literally the minute the free-agent negotiating period began Nov. 3. And their hope, said one source who has spoken with them throughout the process, was to "get it done quick."
So after waiting three weeks for a response to their original offer, the Marlins appeared to be making a major push in recent days either to finish this deal or move on -- possibly to Aramis Ramirez, maybe to Pujols, potentially to Cuban phenom Yoenis Cespedes, or to some combination thereof.
Reyes does have other options, starting with the Brewers if they don't sign Fielder and the Cardinals if they don't sign Pujols. And the Mets have never completely signed off, as long as Reyes is willing to take a shorter deal. But EVERYONE in baseball who picked a team for Reyes predicted he'd be a Marlin. So that should tell you something.
We also had a flurry of prognostications that Wilson will wind up an Angel. ("He's an unbelievable fit for them," said one GM.) But Buehrle is on so many teams' radar screens, projections for him were all over the map. One team to watch, though, is the Nationals, who have made him their No. 1 rotation target, sources say.
So you'll be hearing those five names pretty much nonstop over the next few days. But who's the best bet among that group to hold a news conference at these meetings? The folks we surveyed think that's Wilson. Which probably means he won't sign until Groundhog Day.
Most likely to get traded this week
Adrian Gonzalez got traded at last year's winter meetings. So did Shaun Marcum, J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds and Jason Bartlett (although technicalities held up the announcement of that deal for more than a week). Well, it wouldn't shock anyone if we see at least as much action this week. And that would be fine for all of us professional rumor-chasers.
But when we asked the folks in our poll to name the player they thought was most likely to get traded at these winter meetings, we got 10 different names, from Martin Prado and Carlos Quentin to Maicer Izturis and Ben Francisco. The name we heard most, however, was an A's pitcher who isn't named Gio Gonzalez or Trevor Cahill.
That would be Oakland's soon-to-be-former closer, Andrew Bailey, a guy this team wouldn't be unloading if these were normal times in the life of this franchise.
But since the A's have no idea whether their future playing field will be located in Oakland, San Jose, Billy Beane's backyard or Amsterdam, they're retooling. Yeah, again. It's what they do best -- or frequently, at any rate.
Beane is also dangling Gonzalez, Cahill and virtually every other name on his roster. But indications are that Bailey has the best chance of calling a moving van this week.
He's young (27). He's a low-budget alternative to Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez and the free-agent closer brigade. And despite some forearm issues and slight regression in his performance, Bailey is still an effective, strike-throwing, swing-and-miss bullpen force with a better career strikeout-walk ratio (3.55) than Madson, Heath Bell or Joe Nathan.
Among the teams interested: the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Rangers, Padres, Mets and Reds. We'd bet he'll be working for one of them by the end of the month, if not the end of the week.
The Human Trade Rumor Award
This is another one of the fun categories in our annual survey. And just so you understand the distinction between a Human Trade Rumor and the winner of our Most Likely to Get Traded competition, there IS an important difference.
Some guys show up in Rumor Central because they're really about to get dealt. But others make the old rumor circuit because their team is dangling them, or at least listening. So we spend winter meetings week talking about them nonstop, especially if they're world famous enough, even though most of them never go anywhere.
Normally, there's some sort of consensus on the most likely Human Trade Rumor. But this year, five players got significant support. Here they come:
• Matt Garza: Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer view the Cubs as a long-term urban-renewal project. So they'll be listening on just about everybody. But Garza's name is out there heavily. There's no doubt about that. The doubt centers around whether he winds up moving, considering the hefty price tag. "I'll be shocked if Theo trades him," said one exec. "Let's just say he wants a lot for him. So because of that, because of what he's asking, I don't think he really wants to trade him."
• Gio Gonzalez: There's that name again. We've already covered why the A's would even think of dealing a 26-year-old, 200-inning strikeout machine. But Gonzalez is another guy whose early asking price is so steep, it's hard to envision any team meeting it. We've heard rumblings the A's asked the Marlins for Mike Stanton, for instance. Another club's exec said the price was two young players it viewed as future stars, plus a third young player. Yet another exec said it would take "a haul" to pull this off. Gonzalez is arbitration-eligible, but he's also four years from free agency. "So they can just sit back and be patient," said one exec. "They don't have to move him."
• John Danks: It's even tough for Kenny Williams' fellow GMs to get a good feel for what he's really up to. But one of them says the White Sox are sending out the vibe they're "looking to dump guys making $6-9 million." So that means Gavin Floyd and Carlos Quentin are also in this mix, both because they fit inside those price points and because, like Danks, they're a year away from free agency. But Williams has been especially active in trying to shop Danks, whose numbers slipped across the board this season. So far, though, the asking price has been "ridiculous," said an official of one club that checked in. The Yankees, for example, have told other clubs they were asked for both Jesus Montero and their top pitching prospect, Manny Banuelos. And that price will need to drop if the White Sox sincerely want to move this fellow.
• James Shields: Just about everyone we surveyed was skeptical that Tampa Bay really intends to trade this guy after a breakthrough year -- especially at a time when the Rays clearly believe they're positioned to make it back to the postseason. So if they trade any starting pitcher, it's more likely to be Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis or Alex Cobb. But for what it's worth, the Rays have never stopped telling teams they'll listen on Shields. So as one GM put it, "I think there will be a lot of James Shields talk out there this week."
• Joey Votto: We're not sure how many times the Reds can say they're not interested in dealing their best player before other teams will stop talking about it. But apparently, we're not there yet. So we guess Votto qualifies as a Human Trade Rumor, even though there's still no sign the Reds want to trade him -- not this week, not any week in the near future. But that won't keep other clubs from seeing a team that probably can't sign Votto long term in two years and has an in-house replacement in Yonder Alonso who is ready to play (or at least hit) in the big leagues right now. So if they insist on dialing Walt Jocketty's cell phone, we'll have no choice but to keep firing Votto's name out there.
Others who got votes: Jurrjens, Prado, Quentin, B.J. Upton.
Other storylines to watch this week
• Other free agents: We also asked our panelists which free agent they thought was most likely to sign this week. Wilson won that poll going away. But all these men also received votes: Michael Cuddyer, Matt Capps, Coco Crisp, Jimmy Rollins and Jerry Hairston Jr.
• Team to watch: The Marlins were easy choices in this category, with folks forecasting they'll make two significant moves this week -- assuming Heath Bell still qualifies as one of them. (His signing isn't official yet, so why not?) The only other club that got multiple votes: The Nationals, who are aggressively chasing starting pitching (Buehrle?) and a center fielder (Cespedes?), and keep getting linked to Fielder despite denials from Nationals execs that they're actively involved.
• Yoenis-mania: Speaking of Cespedes, clubs monitoring the status of this dazzling 26-year-old Cuban mega-talent believe there's a realistic chance he could be declared a free agent (by establishing official residence in the Dominican Republic) before the end of the meetings. Then the bidding could get wild and crazy for a guy widely agreed to be the most tool-laden young Cuban position player ever to defect. The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Cubs, Tigers, Nationals and Marlins head the list of clubs showing legit interest.
• Help wanted: Finally, nobody we've asked can remember a team that arrived at the winter meetings looking for a general manager. But the Astros are making all sorts of strange history these days. So they'll spend the week interviewing candidates AND listening to offers on guys such as Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee and Brett Myers. Which creates the surreal prospect of Rockies assistant GM Bill Geivett stopping by the Astros' suite one day to work on trading FOR Rodriguez, then showing up again the next day to interview for a job that would empower him to trade AWAY Rodriguez. Are these bizarre times in Houston, or what?
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 a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst
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