NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There are more people in the Gaylord Opryland Hotel than there were in the town in which I grew up. It is a hotel where then-Padres general manager Kevin Towers once offered a particular player to any other GM who could find Towers' room.
Baseball loves the publicity its Winter Meetings generate, but the Minor League folks decide where those meetings will be held, and without a legitimate lobby and an average time of 15-20 minutes needed to get from meeting to meeting, nearly as much business will be held by texts as there would be if everyone stayed home and did face-to-face interaction on Skype.
This is a fascinating offseason, as well. The industry is awash in media cash, yet teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets are proceeding cautiously -- in a couple of cases, trying to get to a certain payroll level by the 2014 season, when there will be a substantial reward for staying under the $189 million mark. Don't worry about the Dodgers -- they may be at $289 million by '14 if the Neiman Marcus catalogs have the right stuff.
So, as we start to weave our way through the hotel that comprises a quarter of Tennessee's land mass to find where Jim Fregosi is holding court, these are the leading storylines to watch:
Where does Zack Greinke go? Greinke is a fascinating person, one the media does not know, one who this past June helped the Brewers by breaking down video of potential Draft choices. Agent Casey Close could well get Greinke the largest contract in history for a pitcher, and it's going to be where Greinke wants to pitch.
For a while now, it has been assumed that the Dodgers, Angels, Rangers and Nationals would be the leading suitors, but things change. There have been rumors that the Angels are not going to surpass the $17.5 million annual average salary Jered Weaver gets the next four years, and their recent trade for Tommy Hanson may substantiate that. Texas could use money that would have gone to Josh Hamilton and pay Greinke, and the righty could work with The Brothers Maddux. If Dodgers chairman Mark Walter is willing to get into the business of guaranteeing six or seven years on a starting pitcher, the attraction for Greinke of pitching with Clayton Kershaw -- also a Close client -- might be very strong.
Will there be a surprise move on Hamilton, or will his free agency drag on deep into Advent? Hamilton's agent, Michael Koye, and Close are very protective of their clients' privacy and respectful of the teams' negotiators, so there isn't likely to be a lot of leakage in either case. There are teams that are concerned about Hamilton's admitted past issues. Some ask, "If the Rangers haven't jumped in, what do they know that we don't?"
OK, we heard some of the questions about Hamilton in the second half and know Nolan Ryan was critical of his star, but the possibility of a huge annual average value with a short term could be fascinating, because one very astute club evaluator this summer watched Hamilton for a week and asked, "Did Mickey Mantle actually have more ability than Josh Hamilton? I don't think so."
What will the Rays do? Will they trade David Price, knowing that this is the offseason to maximize his market, because every year he is closer to free agency, the price lessens? Could they get Elvis Andrus, Mike Olt, Martin Perez and two younger prospects from Texas? The Rangers would have to consider it for three years of one of the best pitchers in the game. But more likely, the Rays move James Shields, and if they can get Wil Myers and a prospect arm like Chris Dwyer from the Royals, they'd have to consider it. Tampa Bay can trade Jeremy Hellickson; it can trade Wade Davis to a team such as Toronto. Because of their success the past five years, the Rays are not getting prime Draft picks, and they have positional needs that their pitching depth can help to fill.
Can Scott Boras move Tigers owner Mike Ilitch on Rafael Soriano, knowing Ilitch wants to win in a two-year window? Asking a kid like Bruce Rondon to close in a pennant race is a lot to ask.
And while Boras is working on that, it will be interesting to see if the Phillies pay what Michael Bourn -- that rare combination of a premier up-the-middle defender and leadoff hitter -- should get in the wake of B.J. Upton's $75.5 million contract. If the Phils were to go in another direction for Angel Pagan, as rumored, who would invest $80 million to $100 million in Bourn? That's a very tough call.
When will the Anibal Sanchez price begin to drop below the $90 million level? "I like Anibal and realize he's averaged more than 190 innings the last three years," said one American League general manager, "but there's a lot of medical history there to start talking about a five- or six-year deal." One AL team claims the asking price for Sanchez was for a seven-year contract.
The old saying that "there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal" may come into play in this market, because as another GM said, "Once you give a pitcher in his 30s a long-term contract, you know when you sign it that sooner or later you're going to be sending checks to the house."
How will the bats sort? Nick Swisher's even left-right splits and ability to play first base and the outfield make him very attractive. Adam LaRoche is a good defensive first baseman and a productive bat. Mike Napoli kills left-handers and can catch, even if only 50-60 games. The Nats can trade Michael Morse with the addition of Denard Span. Shane Victorino's skill levels may have slightly slipped, but he still brings energy and versatility. Logan Morrison might benefit from leaving Miami and then toning it down.
Is Justin Upton going to be traded? The D-backs know how he feels. If they're going to publicly put him out there like a 54-inch HDTV at Best Buy, then go ahead and trade him. Towers would trade him if he could get Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox), Didi Gregorius (Reds) or Andrus or Jurickson Profar from Texas, but that hasn't opened up thus far.
Will there be an HOV lane to the Indians' suite? ... as teams talk to Cleveland about Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Masterson, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez, etc.?
Will there be a starting-pitching run for Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster, Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson? Three teams interested in Haren earlier this fall backed off because of the medical reports on his hip, but he finished September strong. And while Haren's velocity was down during the season, he and agent Greg Landry will be armed with all the medical records teams desire to take a shot on a workaholic who averaged 226 innings for seven years before last year's hip and back issues.
Will there be a run to the Mets to try to trade for R.A. Dickey? Fascinating story, even after rewarding David Wright for his loyalty, character and performance. It's hard to move the National League Cy Young Award winner, but the one area where the Mets have a stock of young talent is pitching.
If it seemed strange to have the Yankees outbid for Russell Martin, it is true that GM Brian Cashman never got around to making an offer. What is surprising is that Cashman is a huge Martin fan, but their payroll position may well keep them using Austin Romine, Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, eschewing a free agent like A.J. Pierzynski. Cashman did try for David Ross because of the defense, but it is clear that defense is what is most valued.
The Red Sox have cash on hand after their Dodgers deal, but they do not want to get involved in long-term obligations.
"We want to build a good team for this season," said Ben Cherington, "but we don't want to get in the way of building a great team beginning in 2014 [when their best prospects presumably will be ready]."
So having signed Jonny Gomes, they are sifting through Napoli, Cody Ross, Swisher, LaRoche, Morse, Victorino, et al, looking to sign one or two to deals with two-year limits.
Cherington is also looking for at least one veteran starter for rotation depth, something the Red Sox severely lacked in 2012. Manager John Farrell plans to give Franklin Morales a look as a starter in Spring Training, and Boston's scouts who have gone to the Dominican to watch knuckleballer Steven Wright believe he could pitch for the Red Sox this season, with a Dickey-esque vertical knuckler and a fastball he has gotten up to 88 mph.
Last season, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Aaron Cook and Zach Stewart made 31 starts filling in, averaging 4 2/3 innings per start and going 5-20 with a 7.12 ERA.
The Royals did ask about Jon Lester in a deal that would have included Myers and young pitching. And while Cherington seems disinclined to trade his most accomplished veteran pitcher, the Boston GM has indicated he would listen if he could open 2014 with more young talent around shortstop Bogaerts, center fielder Jackie Bradley, catcher Christian Vazquez (called by one scout, "a solid, everyday two-way receiver for 10 years" off the Arizona Fall League), right fielder Bryce Brentz and third baseman Will Middlebrooks.
There will not be Giancarlo Stanton trade talk; he makes the minimum in 2013. There may not be much Marlins talk, for that matter. However, between Christian Yelich's Von Hayes comparisons and the promise of outfielder Jake Marisnick from the Toronto deal, and the ability of catcher Rob Brantley, there is positional talent in the organization -- just talent that can be watched in other parts of Florida, like Jupiter and Jacksonville. However, on the Major League level, beware of Miami's pitching, even if the Marlins trade Ricky Nolasco. They have their closer in Steve Cishek. In Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner, Nate Eovaldi and their own Jose Fernandez and Andrew Heaney, Miami could be a tough team to face in the dog days (with South Beach nights), when there are 5,000 people in the stands.
Greinke, Hamilton and the most commonly-heard phrase, "Do you know where I can find ... ?" To baseball people, Bruce Springsteen should record "Jungleland" as "Opryland" and pipe it in over the canned carols.