- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Holy moly. What a week.
Has any edition of the winter meetings ever been overshadowed by the week before the winter meetings?
As next week's annual rumorfest at Disney approaches, you wouldn't believe the number of people in baseball who think that could seriously happen.
"I don't ever remember a day like Tuesday ever," said one American League official. "Not just [during] the week before the winter meetings. Ever. Even at the winter meetings, I don't remember a day like that. I'd like to know how many teams traded a player or agreed with a [free agent]. I bet it was more than half the teams in baseball."
Good call. We counted 20 teams that did one of the above between Monday afternoon and Tuesday night. Life got so insane for a while there it prompted one National League executive to ask: "Did we invent a trade deadline in the offseason that I didn't know about?"
Boy, it seemed like it. In a span of not much more than 24 hours, there were signings or agreements involving Joe Nathan, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski, Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, Scott Kazmir and Ryan Vogelsong. Plus seven trades involving 25 players. Plus a non-tender day that released 43 more free agents into the wild.
And we haven't even mentioned the 78-ring Robinson Cano/Jay Z circus.
And yet, as winter-meetings week rushes at us headlong, there's still so much more to do. Nelson Cruz, Shin-Soo Choo and about 800 free-agent pitchers are still unsigned. Big names like David Price and Jeff Samardzija still dangle in the trade-rumor breeze.
So let's take a look at what might go down at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., next week, with the help of 17 executives who took part in our annual winter-meetings survey:
We've had a swarm of signings or agreements involving 21 of Keith Law's top 50 free agents, compared with only six a year ago at this time. But until the last 24 hours -- when Robinson Cano, Carlos Beltran, Mike Napoli and Curtis Granderson found homes -- most of those deals had come from the second tier.
So we asked the execs who took part in our survey to take a shot at one of our favorite games -- predicting the date when four of the most prominent free agents would sign. As always, the responses were a source of tremendous fun:
So can you tell those predictions were all over the map or what? This has been such a strange market to read, there was almost no consensus on any of these players. But here's how the group looked at those four names:
Shin-Soo Choo: The popular wisdom is that Ellsbury might have just gone down as the first prominent Scott Boras free agent ever to come to a deal a full six days before the winter meetings. So to balance with his quick strike, some execs think Boras will take his time on Choo, until another $150 million lottery ticket arrives. One exec even made Choo his yearly pick to sign at "halftime of the Super Bowl."
But there's another group that believes Boras is trying to show his newest Darth Vader rival, Jay Z -- and the rest of the industry -- how decisive he can be. So about half the group guessed Choo could sign as soon as the winter meetings, or immediately thereafter, with all of them guessing he would land with the Rangers, Mariners or Tigers (even though the Tigers are suggesting they're out). Stay tuned.
Matt Garza: It's incredible how the top of the starting-pitcher market has plodded along -- to the point that four executives said of Garza: "I don't even hear his name mentioned." But that's not all Garza's fault. In an offseason in which the posting of Masahiro Tanaka has been delayed and potential trades for Price and Samardzija have been slow to develop, "the starting-pitcher market is going to take a lot longer to establish itself," said one exec. "And guys like Garza are caught up in that."
So only four of the people we surveyed saw Garza signing any earlier than the third week of December. The Yankees and Orioles were the popular picks. But there are too many moving parts in this market for anyone to know yet where this is heading.
Ubaldo Jimenez: With a first-round draft pick attached and three years of inconsistency complicating the evaluation of what you're buying in Jimenez, the voters were dramatically split on the fate and pace of Jimenez's journey. A few thought he could sign next week, but two predicted he wouldn't find a home until February. A third said Jan. 28. A fourth jokingly forecast he would sign with the Chiba Lotte Marines.
"You should never forget," said one exec, "how many teams don't want to give up those draft picks."
Kendrys Morales: In a market almost devoid of power, you would think Morales would be a popular figure. But he, too, has that lose-a-draft-pick stigma attached. And NL teams view him, for the most part, as a guy who needs to stay in the AL because of health and defense worries. So almost no one saw him signing any time soon.
"He's in trouble," said one AL exec. And one NL executive made it clear how much he agreed -- by picking March 20 as Morales' signing date, unless the Mariners strike out on the other bats they're chasing and bring him back. "I think he has all the makings," the exec said, "of this year's Kyle Lohse."
Most likely to get traded
So which player in baseball is the best bet to get dealt next week? Ryan Hanigan was leading in the early returns, until the Reds had to go screw up our balloting by dealing him early. So here's the rest of the voting:
But for every Samardzija voter, there's a skeptic on the other side who wonders if the late-blooming Price and Tanaka markets make the Cubs more likely to hang on to Samardzija until later in the winter -- or even until July.
Likewise, the Trumbo votes came from execs who had just heard his name elsewhere, while an official of a club that had interest in him reported: "I don't think they'll move him at all. They seemed more willing to move him a month ago than they are now."
So if we're strictly confining this discussion to who gets traded next week, Gregorius, Moreland and Lind feel like better bets than the big names. But one thing we've learned from the insanity of previous winter meetings is: Once teams get caught up in the madness, anything is possible.
Most likely to sign
We asked our panel which free agent (not necessarily a huge name) was the best bet to sign during the winter meetings. Once again, two of the prime suspects -- Saltalamacchia and Ellsbury -- mucked up the voting by taking themselves off the market while balloting was still in progress. But here's how the votes lined up for the rest of the field before Friday:
St. Louis Cardinals
Beltran easily could have been unanimous. His agent, Dan Lozano, has done a bunch of big deals at the meetings. And before Beltran reportedly agreed to a deal on Friday night with the Yankees, it clearly already felt as if Lozano had put the pieces in place for that to happen again with Beltran. Before that happened, the execs who voted had said they wouldn't have been shocked if Beltran landed in Texas or Detroit. So now we'll see if Choo takes the hint and also agrees to terms before he boards a plane for Orlando.
This year's Human Trade Rumor?
We could have told you who would win this vote before we ever took it. But here goes. (Poll-taker's note: One voter cast a vote for both Price and Samardzija.)
Tampa Bay Rays
Is there any player in baseball who fits the definition of "human trade rumor" better than David Price? The Rays' ace is highly unlikely to get traded during the meetings. But he's 100 percent likely to be talked about every minute of every day during the meetings.
Clubs that have checked in say the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, has been exceptionally deliberate in his handling of the Price talks so far, getting a handle on who's interested but not getting into a whole lot of dialogue beyond that.
That figures to change dramatically next week, though. Last winter, when Friedman was in a similar spot with James Shields, his deal with the Royals crystallized rapidly at the meetings. But other clubs expect the Price deal to materialize more slowly.
For one thing, he's David Price. And in this market, there's a humongous gap between him and every other starting pitcher a team can sign or trade for. So there is no reason for Friedman to move quickly unless he gets exactly what he wants.
For another, there are, undoubtedly, teams that would be more interested in blowing up their system to make this deal if they could get Price signed beyond 2015. But none of them knows whether they'll get that chance before finishing off this trade. All they know for sure is that the Rays haven't opened any negotiating windows in the past, before the trades of Shields and Matt Garza.
So there will be a long list of teams that have some level of interest -- with the Dodgers, Rangers, Mariners, Angels, Braves, Diamondbacks and Padres appearing to rank high on that list. On the other hand, the group of teams that can actually step up and make this deal, given the asking price and contract issues, might turn out to be much smaller.
It's still unclear exactly what it's going to take for one of those clubs to make this happen. But here's a pithy assessment from one interested party: "Andrew," he said, "is looking to make the Herschel Walker trade."
Which team blows up the transactions column?
Thirty teams will descend on the land of Mickey and Minnie next week. But who will be the busiest? Survey said …
• Yankees 7 votes
• Mariners 4
• Rangers 2
• Red Sox 2
• Angels, Cubs 1 apiece
The Mariners? Yep, they've got some money they need to toss around. … The Rangers and Red Sox? Yep, they've got big plans and lots of balls in the air. … But was there any doubt the winner of this competition was going to be the Bronx Bombardiers? Sheesh, you were expecting maybe the Monterrey Sultans?
As those Yankees dollars were flying this week, one GM put it eloquently.
"The big boys," he said, "are back."
Offseason business has been brisk, but the best is yet to come. The hot stove will burn even brighter during next week's winter meetings.