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Less-heralded moves at Meetings could be pivotal

Unlike a year ago, the final day of the Winter Meetings came and went Thursday without a mystery team, or any team for that matter, swooping in and signing a big free agent.

In fact, the two most prominent available players heading into the offseason -- Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke -- are still without new contracts. But if last offseason tells us anything, though, the most important deals are yet to come -- and they may not even involve Hamilton or Greinke.

At the 2011 Winter Meetings, the Angels stole the spotlight by signing the best available position player, Albert Pujols, and the best available pitcher, C.J. Wilson, on the final day. Earlier that week, the Marlins turned heads by signing shortstop Jose Reyes, and later they signed veteran pitcher Mark Buehrle.

As it turned out, neither team qualified for the postseason. Instead, the Halos finished third in the American League West and the Marlins posted their worst record since 1999, finishing last in the National League East. After the season, Miami dismissed manager Ozzie Guillen and traded away both Buehrle and Reyes, among others, last month.

That said, there were a number of under-the-radar moves last December that ended up paying big dividends to eventual playoff teams.

One of those deals was made on Dec. 23, when the Nationals acquired Gio Gonzalez from the A's in a trade that sent Tommy Milone to Oakland. Gonzalez went 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in the NL Cy Young Award voting. Milone, meanwhile, won 13 games and teamed with another December acquisition, Josh Reddick (acquired Dec. 28 from the Red Sox), to help carry the A's to a surprising AL West title.

Other late-December moves included the Reds' acquisition of Mat Latos (14-4, 3.48 ERA) from the Padres and the Cardinals' signing of right fielder Carlos Beltran (32 home runs, 97 RBIs). Beltran was available in part because the Giants, his team at the end of the 2011 season, opted to trade with the Mets for Angel Pagan -- who wound up playing a key role in their World Series run -- earlier that month.

While those deals certainly received attention at the time they were made, few were calling the Nats, A's, Reds or Giants division favorites as they were with the Angels and Marlins.

So which deals made so far this offseason have the potential to have big impacts next season?

The Angels were again one of the busier teams at this year's Meetings, though they took a much different approach than a year ago. Los Angeles -- which already had acquired starter Tommy Hanson from the Braves and signed reliever Ryan Madson -- further shored up its pitching needs, signing reliever Sean Burnett and starter Joe Blanton. Greinke is expected to sign elsewhere, and Dan Haren departed for the Nationals.

"Sometimes the smartest moves you can do is just make practical decisions," said Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto. "We've made a handful of decisions that we think are best for the club. ... I think what we did in the last few days is we put ourselves in a position where we're fortified and we're stable. We're not going to have to make further additions to be a competitive club."

Similar to the Angels, the Braves made their big move ahead of the Winter Meetings, signing former Rays center fielder B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million deal. Though Atlanta still would have liked to add another outfielder -- preferably one who can bat leadoff -- manager Fredi Gonzalez is confident his team is ready to improve on last season, which ended with a loss in the NL Wild Card game.

"Well, there's always Christmas right around the corner, so you never know when you're going to get a little gift," Gonzalez said. "But I touched on it a little bit earlier: If nothing else happens, nothing else happens. And between now and the start of the season is still a long ways, and there's still a lot of things that could happen. You feel pretty good that you're going to be able to compete in our division, which is a tough division."

It's a division that only got tougher, as the Phillies acquired center fielder Ben Revere from the Twins on Thursday and the defending NL East-champion Nationals signed Haren, the free-agent right-hander agreeing to a one-year deal.

"I think we're in a perfect position to show the world that we're a pretty good ballclub, and we can go farther into the postseason, and I want to be a part of that," said Nats manager Davey Johnson, who plans to retire after next season. "I still have a love of the game, and I have a love of this organization. 'World Series or bust,' that's probably the slogan this year. But I'm comfortable with that."

The Red Sox were another busy team this week, agreeing to deals with catcher Mike Napoli, outfielder Shane Victorino and reliever Koji Uehara.

It's hard to say exactly what impact any of these deals will have on next season, but it's important to remember, as the Angels and Marlins can attest to, that division championships aren't won or lost at the Winter Meetings.

Aside from Hamilton and Greinke, other key players -- such as Kyle Lohse, Michael Bourn, Adam LaRoche, Ichiro Suzuki, Ryan Dempster and Rafael Soriano -- were all still looking for new deals as the Meetings ended. Not to mention the Gonzalez/Milone-type trades that are bound to take place as the winter progresses.

One team looking to make a big splash into that remaining free-agent pool is Texas, which still hopes to re-sign Hamilton and/or work out a deal for Greinke.

"We're discussing a number of things," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We were hoping to push some things across the finish line. It didn't happen. We didn't push anything across the finish line, but I think we will soon."

Whatever happens in the coming days or weeks regarding Hamilton and Greinke, remember that next year's champion could end up being determined by the Pagans, Gonzalezes and Reddicks of a season ago.