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Will Mariners be stealth spenders at Meetings?

SEATTLE -- A year ago, it was the Miami Marlins making headlines and stealing the thunder -- or attempting to purchase high-priced lightning in a bottle -- as the Winter Meetings opened in Dallas.

But after the Marlins committed $191 million in a matter of hours to shortstop Jose Reyes, starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell to boldly jump-start the 2011 Meetings, it's fair to wonder if any team will emerge as a similar surprise at next week's gathering at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn.

Owners and general managers looking for a cautionary tale when it comes to frenzied free-agent spending won't need very long memories, given Miami's failure to convert its winter win into summer success.

Even the Angels, who wrapped up last year's Meetings in even bigger blockbuster fashion by signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson for a combined $331 million, failed to find any immediate playoff reward from their open-wallet policy.

So will there be a more careful approach at this Winter Meetings? Or does the influx of new television money and inevitable lure of landing top talent trump recent history? And is there a Marlins sleeper team lying in the weeds, waiting to grab the gusto?

All the headlines won't happen at the Winter Meetings. Outfielder B.J. Upton already agreed to a five-year, $75.25 million deal on Wednesday with the Braves. Prince Fielder waited until two weeks after last year's Dallas gathering to sign his nine-year, $214 million deal with Detroit. But surely there will be some noise from Nashville, as most of this year's top free agents remain on the market, including Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke.

With the Yankees temporarily shying from big long-term deals as they seek to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold, the Dodgers seem to be the new free spenders. Don't be surprised if their new owners continue making their mark in the Music City.

But the Dodgers may not even win the headline battle in Los Angeles as the Angels seem poised to pursue pitching, which automatically puts them in the high-profile category again if they bring back Greinke.

The Nationals appear willing and able to make a splash and the Red Sox definitely have payroll room after largely clearing their books last season by sending Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers.

Come to think of it, the Marlins themselves opened up payroll space more dramatically than anyone with their recent mega-deal with the Blue Jays. But, yeah, it would seem a bit contradictory for owner Jeffrey Loria to turn around and play that game again.

The case could well be made that Toronto already made the biggest offseason splurge by taking on $146 million in payroll from the Marlins. But we're talking Winter Meetings here. And something will happen. It always does.

Last year it was the Marlins. Two years ago, the Red Sox went big with the acquisitions of Gonzalez and Crawford.

Another cautionary tale?

"I think how I feel is that fans in Boston are sort of tired of hearing how good we are in the winter," Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington told earlier this week.

That doesn't mean the Red Sox won't be players, however. They've got payroll room and needs. But big-splash candidates? That remains to be seen.

When it comes to stealth headline stealers, don't overlook the Tigers. The last time the Meetings were in Nashville, in 2007, Detroit acquired budding young slugger Miguel Cabrera in an eight-player trade with the Marlins despite coming in with no glaring needs.

Last year, the Tigers came out of nowhere to win the Fielder sweepstakes even with Cabrera now a certified star of his own. Would they possibly do it again? Owner Mike Ilitch is motivated to take his team to that last top rung and GM Dave Dombrowski has been willing to pull the trigger on blockbusters, so anything is possible.

Just as with Fielder a year ago, someone is going to eventually swoop in and win the Hamilton bidding. With the Braves beating the Phillies in the battle for Upton, it's possible Philadelphia could make a push for Hamilton. And whoever lands the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player will instantly be one of the offseason's prime players.

But as for a Marlins' type hype, a surprise club taking the Winter Meetings by storm in Nashville? Some have mentioned Seattle as the quiet candidate, given some payroll flexibility and a crying need for offense. But Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik echoes the decision makers of most mid-market clubs when he says his team won't likely be diving into the deepest end of the free-agent pool.

"Sometimes it appears the vogue thing is to jump in and do something because you get the headlines and a big splash," Zduriencik said. "But last year we walked out of there [in Dallas] and teams that made huge splashes, it didn't work out exactly how they wanted. You have to do what is best for your organization in the longterm."

Zduriencik has already said his club doesn't expect to be in the hunt for Hamilton. Much like with Fielder and Pujols a year ago, few teams actually partake in that big-game derby. But in the end, some owner will pony up, the premier players will sign and big headlines will be written.

It's the nature of the beast, even if the Marlins don't figure to be swimming in those waters this time around.

Seattle Mariners