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December 12, 2008

On the Beat

Winter Meetings Wrap

by John Perrotto

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LAS VEGAS-The entire sport of baseball seems to be in a holding pattern, something that was quite evident during the Winter Meetings which ended on Thursday with the Rule 5 Draft. Executives, managers, and scouts hustled out of the Bellagio in order to catch flights home, and that may have been the most movement seen during the four-day event.

There were five trades during the four days, but only one had grabbed everyone's attention, the 12-team extravaganza between the Mets, Mariners, and Indians late Wednesday night. The lone major free-agent signing at the meetings themselves involved the Mets inking closer Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million contract, though Yankees general manager Brian Cashman shuttled to San Francisco to grab the prize of this year's market as left-hander CC Sabathia agreed to a seven-year, $161 million deal that won't be officially announced until next week.

Otherwise, the most enduring images of the meetings were of baseball people standing around the Bellagio's casino, with the occasional spotting of someone hanging out at the race and sports book. Though we won't name names, a manager nicknamed "Sweet" sure seemed to enjoy watching the ponies.

Most baseball executives believe that the slow pace of the free-agent market-the Sabathia mega-deal and the Bellagio's six-dollar cups of coffee notwithstanding-can be attributed to the United States undergoing its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression struck eight decades ago. "The economy is something that does concern me personally, and should concern everybody in baseball," Marlins president David Samson said. "I think if there are any agents out there who do not believe the economy is a factor in how teams do their business, they are in for a major surprise. What's going on is much bigger than the game of baseball. This is a different world. Anyone who does not see that is kidding themselves."

The Yankees apparently do live in a different world; they signed Sabathia to the largest contract ever offered to a pitcher. They are also trying to sign such other big-ticket free agents as right-handers A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe, and first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Yankees' winning bid to Sabathia made the Brewers' reported final offer to retain the lefty of six years and $110 million look like tip money.

Normally mild-mannered Brewers general manager Doug Melvin reportedly stormed away during talks with Cashman on Thursday morning about a trade that would have sent center fielder Mike Cameron and utilityman Bill Hall to the Yankees for center fielder Melky Cabrera and left-handed starter Kei Igawa. According to sources, Melvin became infuriated when the Yankees asked the Brewers to pay part of Cameron's $10 million salary for 2008, just days after using their financial clout to take Sabathia away from Milwaukee.

Baseball revenues reportedly reached $6.5 billion for the 2008 season, but teams say they are feeling the crunch, or are prepared to feel it soon. "Baseball is the first sport teed up to see just how much of an impact the economy is going to make," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said.

The Pirates, never big spenders to begin with, lost a major sponsorship agreement with General Motors this week. While Pirates GM Neal Huntington said that it would not have a direct impact on his roster moves, he knows there are other clubs that will be affected. "Even though we haven't been told we have less money to spend, we're going to make sure more than ever that we spend all of our dollars the right way in this economic climate," Huntington said. "You talk to people from various clubs, and they are watching finances more than in years past to one degree or another. Everyone is a little uncertain right now."

That is part of the reason why the vast majority of players who filed for free agency in November are still on the market, and could remain there until spring training begins in mid-February. "Every year there are a certain amount of free agents still standing when the music stops, but I do think there will be more of them than normal this winter," said Nationals president Stan Kasten.

Like many teams, the Indians know that their off-season work may not be done until right up to the eve of spring training, or perhaps even after teams begin working out in Florida and Arizona. "The economy is having some kind of effect on just about every person in this country, so it stands to reason that it is making an impact in baseball," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "Everyone is cognizant of that, and I'm not sure anyone can know with any real certainty what is going to happen next. I know we've been more cautious in deciding to makes moves, and I'm sure it's that way all around baseball."

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Without fanfare, general managers decided during the Winter Meetings to eliminate the process of using coin flips to decide home-field advantage in tie-breaker games for division titles or wild-card playoff berths. Beginning next season, head-to-head records in the regular season will determine who plays at home.

That comes a year too late for the Twins, who lost 1-0 to the White Sox at US Cellular Field in Chicago in a one-game playoff for the American League Central title last season. The Twins had won the season series from the White Sox, 10-9. Ironically, White Sox GM Ken Williams voted for the new procedure. "He was one GM who spoke passionately about it at the GM meetings," Twins GM Bill Smith said, referring to last month's confab in Dana Point, California. "[Williams] said, 'We benefitted from it, but it's wrong and should be changed.'"

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The results of the Rule 5 Draft rarely affect the following season's pennant races, but this year the Mets used the Rule 5 to continue their week-long trend of strengthening the bullpen. The Mets, who were next to last in the National League in team WXRL, selected relievers Darren O'Day from the Angels and Rocky Cherry from the Orioles. That came after the earlier signing of Francisco Rodriguez as a free agent, and the acquisition of J.J. Putz and Sean Green from the Mariners in Wednesday's three-team trade.

O'Day made his major league debut with the Angels last season and had 0.035 WXRL in 43 1/3 innings with 49 hits allowed, 14 walks, and 29 strikeouts. Cherry, who compiled a 5.77 ERA in 40 relief appearances with the Cubs and Orioles over the parts of the last two seasons, had -0.682 WXRL in 18 games and 17 innings for Baltimore in 2008 with 15 hits allowed, 16 walks, and 15 strikeouts.

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Major League Rumors and Rumblings: Rockies center fielder Willy Taveras will almost certainly be non-tendered before tonight's midnight deadline to offer players contracts, and others who could meet the same fate and become free agents include Orioles right-hander Daniel Cabrera, Reds reliever Gary Majewski, Dodgers reliever Takashi Saito, Athletics catcher Rob Bowen, Pirates reliever Denny Bautista, Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes, and Blue Jays relievers Jason Frasor and Brian Tallet. ... Though their attempts to acquire ace pitcher Jake Peavy from the Padres fell apart on Thursday, the Cubs are still working on another trade that would send right-hander Jason Marquis to the Mets for left-handed reliever Scott Schoeneweis. ... The Brewers are looking at a number of free-agent starting pitchers, including left-handers Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer, and Randy Wolf, and right-hander John Smoltz. The Giants are also expected to make a pitch for Johnson. ... The Dodgers insist they will not go past two years in any offer to retain left fielder Manny Ramirez, and the Yankees and Nationals are emerging as the favorites to land him, though the Angels will also enter the picture if they can't re-sign first baseman Mark Teixeira. ... Cashman flew from Las Vegas to Houston on Thursday to meet with left-hander Andy Pettitte in an attempt to persuade him to remain with the Yankees as a free agent. ... The Angels are considering making an attempt to trade for Peavy with an offer that could include such prospects as pitcher Nick Adenhart and infielder Brandon Wood. ... The Marlins have interest in Rangers catching prospect Max Ramirez, and are willing to trade pitching prospect Ryan Tucker.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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