The snow falling outside UTK HQ reminds me that it’s December and the winter meetings really do happen in the winter. Inside and across the whisper wire, things are hot and heating up as bags are packed for Dallas. We’ll hear endless references to what happened last time the meetings were in that hotel–the Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez contracts–and we’ll stand in the lobbies and workrooms trying to figure out the next deals.

So let’s grind:

  • The Blue Jays have a checkbook and they know how to use it. Rogers Communications has those great Guy Caballero infomercials, and apparently you Canadian readers are really using the On Demand movie features, at least enough to give the Jays what I can affectionately call “stupid money.” With B.J. Ryan in hand and Brian Giles, another Ricciardi target, gone, the focus is squarely on A.J. Burnett. Long thought to have the inside track on Burnett due to the pitcher’s relationship with Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, the Jays haven’t been able to seal the five-year deal quite yet. The Mariners and Cardinals have been the most focused, though neither team seems able to match what the Jays can do, so what’s the holdup? No one seems to know at this stage, leaving everyone wondering if there’s a team or two working something creatively behind the scenes. The Rangers would love to make a splash on their home turf, but have been working more on trades and tweaks than something you might call a signature move. It could be that Baltimore is rattling their checkbook, reminding Burnett and his agent that they, too, know how to use it.
  • Last season, the biggest signings of the meetings happened in the first few days, with names like Russ Ortiz, Kris Benson and Steve Finley signing long-term deals. The same could well happen in Dallas, with Rafael Furcal seemingly on track to sign. The Cubs have their offer on the table, believed to be just slightly higher than B.J. Ryan’s deal–yes, I’m going to keep picking that scab–and seem to want to bid just high enough to keep the Braves from matching. Furcal solves a lot of problems for the Cubs, and that giant ATM they call Wrigley Field pays for his contract and a lot more. The Cubs should be active in Dallas, possibly signing another player and trading for as many as two more key components.
  • The Brian Giles deal appeared to surprise everyone except the Padres and Jayson Stark. Giles took the lowest offer he saw, a hometown discount for the Padres, and chose to stay close to home. Several teams were disappointed, including the Indians, Braves and Mariners, but all have moved on to their next options. The Pads will have a new outfield next season, especially if Kevin Towers can find a speedy left fielder. Juan Pierre would be a fit for the big ballpark and the Pads have several solid prospects to deal. In a very competitive division, one small deal could really tip the balance of power. Then again, Barry Bonds is back, and back so well that he’ll be wearing red, white and blue before he dons orange and black for one more season.
  • Paul Konerko and Jim Thome. Is it a pairing like Maris and Mantle, Martin and Lewis, or is it throwing a lot of money at two aging sluggers who could well be on the downslopes of their careers? It’s been covered a lot in other locations, so what does it mean for the White Sox plans the rest of the offseason? Essentially, the team is done. It did what it needed to do and hasn’t overextended itself. Don’t expect to see many long-term deals tying the team to guys just because there’s a ring on their finger, and don’t expect to see much other than some small tweaks to replace guys like Geoff Blum. Don’t discount the importance of the bench at this time of the season. For a team like the Sox without a ton of hot, tradeable prospects, they’re going to have to play 2006 with what they bring to the table in February.
  • The hot rumor of the day is Manny Ramirez being swapped for Bobby Abreu. On the surface, the deal makes some sense, but not really once you look deeper. Ramirez is better than Abreu and, Miss Venezuela not withstanding, Abreu is less of a distraction in the clubhouse, making this something of a push aside from finances. What it doesn’t do is solve the problems either team has, and neither Pat Gillick nor Boston’s Gang of Four is going to do a deal just to do a deal. The Angels sound like the most likely destination for Ramirez, with the Mariners poking their nose in and the Mets hovering ravenously. The Angels can offer the most prospects, if not the best, though they’ve been reluctant to include Ervin Santana in any deal.
  • Second-tier free agents aren’t exciting, but they are important. Signing Mark Grudzielanek isn’t going to make the headlines that the Carlos Delgado deal did or that the Carlos Beltran signing made, but it’s a small move that fits into a larger plan. The team would love to move Kazuo Matsui if it could find a taker though they’re more likely to let the two play it out for second base in the spring. Other teams–the Braves and Cubs in particular–are hoping to deal for Julio Lugo as a replacement for Furcal, wherever he may roam. The Braves are said to be offering BP’s 2005 #1 prospect Andy Marte in return, which would be a nice deal both ways, considering that Marte has fallen as far as fourth on the organization’s depth chart at third base.
  • If the relievers on the free-agent market didn’t see the B.J. Ryan deal change their value, what did it change? Many people I spoke to since the announcement of the deal think that the deal was so anomalous that it would have little to no effect on things. Others think the change will come both now and in the trade market. “If my team didn’t have a closer,” said one team official, “we’d be calling a team with deep middle relief like the Angels or Astros. A guy that could close is going to be a lot more expensive now.” Another thought that elite starters would see the change. “We can’t keep spending ten million on relievers for the seventh and eighth. I’d rather take that money and add a couple million bucks to get starters that can take those innings.”
  • With Ryan and Billy Wagner signed quickly, the rest of the market tails downward slightly. Trevor Hoffman seems headed for Cleveland, though we thought the same thing about Brian Giles last week. Tom Gordon seems to be Plan B in Philly, though Ryan Madson has some fans, including manager Charlie Manuel. Kyle Farnsworth was rumored to be signed by the Yankees as early as Monday, though the situation continues to progress. Consider that two playoff caliber, “elite” closers–Farnsworth and Bobby Jenks–could have been had for the modern equivalent of Marv Throneberry and the stick of gum at this time last year and tell me why I’m spending so much time tracking this.
  • The Mariners have been relatively quiet thus far in the off-season, only an import of Kenji Johjima on their list. It’s not for lack of effort. Bill Bavasi and his team have quietly been in on many of the top free agents and have had discussions about nearly every player on their roster, including some very vague discussions about Ichiro Suzuki. Sources think that the team isn’t likely to get much more involved, sticking to their plan of allowing their own players to come up through the system. They will be watching and listening to see if there’s a good deal, especially if one of those includes off-loading Adrian Beltre and his contract.
  • Why is Brad Ausmus an important free agent? Not many catchers have a career year at 36 and fewer are the keys to a team’s future success. If Ausmus leaves Houston, as now seems likely, the Astros are less likely to see Roger Clemens back in brick red and could push Jeff Bagwell to retire. Even with Craig Biggio returning for another season, the Astros are in a very similar situation to last season. They’re waiting on Clemens to make a decision, one that’s predicated on what they do. Unfortunately, what they do is largely based on if the money they spent on Clemens has to be re-allocated. They’ll likely be out of any major free-agent bidding, so watch the trade market closely as the Astros are loaded with young, cheap pitchers.
  • Signing Nomar Garciaparra may not be the baseball move it once was, but it does have a PR impact. Garciaparra’s Q rating alone could be enough to get some teams to offer him more than makes sense from a pure baseball standpoint, especially those that need to satisfy a hungry media or disgruntled fan base. The Twins are too busy claiming poverty and thinking about how nice contraction would be to notice that they could afford Garciaparra. They’ll cede him to Baltimore or the Dodgers rather than making the smart move. Jason Kubel is the big wild card for the Twins. No one seems to think he can come back, but he’s so ingrained in their plans that no one there is willing to write him off just yet.
  • The Braves are looking for a closer and have been since John Schuerholz watched his team lose in extra innings back in October. With the big names all but gone, many are surprised that he didn’t try harder to keep Kyle Farnsworth or hasn’t been in the bidding for Trevor Hoffman. Some league sources say that Schuerholz may already have his closer and is focused instead on getting a couple starters to allow him to shift John Smoltz back to the bullpen.

  • The Royals offered Jacque Jones (17.7 VORP) a four-year deal, something that could end up as this year’s Eric Milton contract. It doesn’t have quite the desperation of that move, forced by ownership when there was money on the table, but Jones isn’t exactly going to push the Royals over the hump. Jones is precisely the type of player that the Royals don’t need. It always surprises me that a team that can find free talent like Emil Brown (34.5 VORP) once doesn’t have the confidence that it can do it again.

Be sure to catch up with everything as we get ready for the meetings on Saturday’s Baseball Prospectus Radio. Brad and I will talk with Ken Rosenthal, who’s keeping FOXSports jumping with up-to-the-second updates. We’ll give him a ten-minute break from his work to talk about what’s happening.

Joe Sheehan and I will be in Dallas next week offering on-site news and analysis. We’ll both be doing some work with MLB Radio, including a Baseball Prospectus Hour each day at 6 p.m. ET with Cory Schwartz and Mike Siano. Joe will be doing his work for ESPNews as well, while I focus on radio, but we do have some open slots, so if your station wants to talk baseball, drop me an e-mail. We’ll also make an appearance in Dallas at Jamey Newberg’s autograph session, so if you’re in the area, stop by and say hi. For those of you at the Meetings–journalists and team officials–I look forward to seeing many of you. I’m never hard to find.