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December 12, 2003

Live from the (Mock) Winter Meetings

Menlo Park Version

by James Click

Tuesday night, Gary Huckabay and I hosted the NorCal version of BP's Mock Winter Meetings Pizza Feed. The feed was attended by several dozen very enthusiastic fans and one fan's poor girlfriend, who spent the entire time sitting in the corner wondering how exactly she got mixed up with a group like us.

The rules were essentially the same as the Chicago event: Each participant was given a team, constrained by that team's real-life budget and talent restrictions, and was assigned the task of improving the product as much as possible in a few short hours.

Unlike Chicago, we had a few added bonuses. First, our Feed was held after the arbitration deadline, meaning participants already knew whom they had cut and what players they could not sign. Second, we tried as best we could to approximate estimated arbitration awards on an individual basis. While this was much more time consuming, it provided more accuracy when accounting for payrolls and increased the likelihood that teams would simply release players who were likely to command significantly more than a comparable replacement. Third, we made no effort whatsoever to determine deferment of payments--like insurance coverage for injuries like Mo Vaughn's knee or George Steinbrenner's brain--or to adjust payroll based on the likely economic windfall that follows signing such marquee free agents as Olmedo Saenz. Besides, often the price of handling the deluge of fan demand for tickets offsets the gains of signing a guy like Olmedo.

From the start, Gary and I put aside a special place in our hearts for the GMs who signed up but were unable to go to the trouble of actually attending. Several teams, including the Mets and Yankees, were not accounted for among the participants, necessitating that we play not only the part of every agent but also of Brian Cashman, Jim Duquette, some other GMs, and, inexplicably, Charo, who will be attending the Winter Meetings in New Orleans as part of the Cleveland Indians' delegation.

For the most part, we cut everyone loose in a Hobbesian maelstrom that looked more like the trading floor at the NYSE as envisioned by Hunter S. Thompson than the Winter Meetings. Occasionally, shouts would emanate from our section of the room indicating the imminent signing of a free agent or an open call for another trade. This kept everyone somewhat informed, but for the most part only succeeded in scaring the wait staff.

Will, Nate, and Rany warned us that the participants would be extremely well prepared, but even heeding that advice, I wasn't ready for the sheer volume and intricacy of the deals concocted. The Mock GMs were concise, accurate, and extremely well researched concerning their teams; everyone carried detailed statistical and fiscal information and several fans came armed with laptops. When it was all said and done, there wasn't a single team that looked worse for wear--not a result expected after this weekend's real mayhem in New Orleans.

That said, there were a few interesting trends from the meetings. First, teams seemed much more interested in trading than in signing free agents. This tendency may have been the result of the agents asking a little too much for various players and the absence of true Yankee or Met GMs, but virtually all early contract demands were rebuffed as GMs chose instead to be cost-conscious, filling their roster holes with players struggling for face time on other squads. Vladimir Guerrero's contract demand of five years, $65 million was scoffed at more times than Ryan asking for less pink at his wedding with Trista.

Second, teams came up with some interesting moves to improve their salary situation, usually without involving actual money in the transactions. Houston moved Lance Berkman to Kansas City for Morgan Burkhart, Brandon Berger, Alexis Gomez, and a mere $3 million. The KC GM pulled this off by waiting until Gary and I were too busy to play the role of a sober CFO in the offices of Kauffman Stadium.

In the "Spit-take inducer of the night," Oakland moved Jermaine Dye (to much applause), Graham Koonce, and Mario Ramos to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff, but only after we decided, in the place of Vince Naimoli, that the deal made baseball sense for the Tampa side.

Third, there was a clear breaking point in the free agent negotiations. Once a few contracts were signed, teams were much more willing to increase their offers to claim some of the few remaining talents available. Following a brief run which saw Keith Foulke, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Arthur Rhodes settle down, GMs started to panic. Looking at the lists of remaining free agents led participants through the five stages of grief, a process terminating in baseball's forgotten middle class skimming a few more dollars off the top. Armando Benitez was able to secure a healthier contract than Rhodes and Ricardo Rincon played the Twins bullpen Diaspora into a few extra million. While this may have been a result of the time constraint on the meeting, it's clear that market scarcity changed the game. It only went so far, though, as both Guerrero and Greg Maddux remained unsigned at the end of the night.

Of course there were some missteps along the way. The Reds continually tried to trade Adam Dunn to the Angels for more and more attractive packages of prospects. Each time, the deal would be brought before the Cincinnati ownership (Gary) and each time, he would chastise "Dan O'Brien" like a child repeatedly and insistently asking for candy, eventually sending him away to try to find some real pitching instead.

The Rangers, despite not having Manny Ramirez, kept trying to trade him to the Mets for Mike Piazza, who has a no-trade clause to most AL teams, insisting that Piazza would want to play in Texas because of his mafia connections.

When everything was said and done, teams announced their roster changes and were either voted to the front of the room for further consideration or left seated, forced to consider why they suddenly had Jeff Cirillo or how their team had suddenly become the Devil Rays (a result that actually got "Dave Dombrowski" voted to the front). It was too difficult to pare down the remaining qualified teams to determine a winner, but Gary managed to arbitrarily remove people until granting about six GMs BP Premium and BP 2004 compensation packages for a job well done.

In a day or two, the team-by-team breakdown of deals will be available. Those of you who were there will have to fill in some of the holes since reading Gary's rambling notes is like decrypting Enigma messages. For now, we'll leave you with this choice exchange from late in the evening:

GM: "Who's still available in a starting pitcher?"

James: "Maddux, Sidney Ponson, Cory Lidle, Wilson Alvarez."

GM: "What's Wilson asking?"

James: "Uhh...Wilson would sign a 2-year, $2.5 million dollar deal right now."

GM: "Hmmm. $5 million is a lot. Hmmm. OK, 2-years, $5 million."

Gary: "Wilson's outside right now, dancing in the street. He'll be here in a minute to sign that."

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