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Before we get to talking baseball, here’s a question relevant to the season: in the traditional song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which items does the true love bestow the most of? More on that later, but, first, this:

The First Billion is the Hardest

One word not heard at the Winter Meetings this year was this one: collusion. Yet, in spite of the fact that nobody dares say it, there is every indication that baseball is undergoing another round of the practice. This is not your father’s collusion, though. This is a hip, neo-collusion in which teams band together not to deny players their fair market value, but to slather them with untold riches beyond their wildest imaginings.

What else could possibly explain the mass-payout hysteria that has swept our national game? Surely this is a conspiracy of some sort? Groups of men in the same profession don’t commit mass acts of silliness at random, do they?

As of this writing, 77 free agents have signed major league contracts for 141 years of service for a total of $707 million in compensation, or so my faithful robot companion–whom I call “Excel”–informs me. The question now is this: will the free agent signings of the winter of 2004-05 exceed $1 billion?

To answer that question, let us consider that Carlos Beltran, Moises Alou, Orlando Cabrera,Kevin Millwood, Eric Milton and Jason Varitek have not yet signed. Top that off with the fact that Carlos Delgado is still out there wandering the streets with no place to call home and I think we can safely say it’s going to be awfully close. My guess is that the group just mentioned is going to be good for about 24 total years at around $250 million. Beltran may well get the longest contract of this offseason, besting Adrian Beltre‘s five-year deal by one, two or even three years. That means all the other 140-odd free agents have to do is secure contracts totaling about $50 million and the magic $1 billion mark will be passed.

OK, you’re not going to believe this, but to come up with that $250 million figure, I estimated what they’d all sign for and for how many years. For Cabrera, I penciled in four years at $8 mil per. Then, while in the process of writing the above paragraph, the news came across the wire that that’s exactly what he signed for with Anaheim. See–I told you that you wouldn’t believe me.

Let’s abandon the reverse collusion premise for a moment and consider this: most general managers are bipolar; last year they were on their meds and this year they’re not. As we know, one of the symptoms of a bipolar person acting out is frivolous spending. One such person I saw documented bankrupted herself in about 60 days merely by buying non-stop from the Home Shopping Network. She had so much stuff coming in she did not have time to open all the boxes. They were stacked floor-to-ceiling in her apartment, rising like the towers of a great city built in tribute to her chemical imbalance.

Rumors Abound

Some of the rumors floating around baseball are puzzling, to say the least. The one that has Shea Hillenbrand going to Toronto is a real head-scratcher. Does Hillenbrand, who has now walked two dozen times three years in a row, strike anybody as a J.P. Ricciardi kind of player? And what of the New York Post reporting the Mets offered Cliff Floyd straight up for Hillenbrand? Does that make any kind of sense on any level for New York, other than to bid adieu to an injury-prone player? Are they going to have Hillenbrand line up at first base? Even a team used to Todd Zeile down there would be taken aback by having a player of Hillenbrand’s species at an important offensive position like first. Maybe they forgot they had David Wright at third. It could happen. He came up in the middle of the year, so you could see why he might slip their mind.

It would appear that between Moises Alou, Magglio Ordonez or Sammy Sosa, the Mets will be getting an outfielder out of Chicago one way or another. Why is it that Sosa ca. 2005 is conjuring images of George Foster ca. 1982? Perhaps it is because the Mets have shown a remarkable ability for getting players too late in their careers. You’ve heard the old Branch Rickey quote that goes, “Better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late.” The Mets variation on that is “Better to get a player a year too late than never to have had him at all.”

Time to Spice It Up

Now that the Dodgers-Yankees-Diamondbacks deal has been tabled by Los Angeles, why don’t the Red Sox jump in and make Arizona a happy offer for Randy Johnson? Would Johnson even want to pitch in Boston? Perhaps not, but this offseason has been relatively quiet on the New York-Boston antagonism front, so it would be fun if the Red Sox at least made noise about going after the Big Unit.

Back to Christmas

Give up on what I asked at the outset? No, it’s not the 12 drummers drumming because he only gives them on one day. It’s actually a tie between the geese a-laying and swans a-swimming with 42 each. He gives six of the geese for seven days and seven of the swans for six. In all, he hands over a total of 364 items to his true love. 12 Days along with Hey Jude and just about anything by Stevie Wonder are the most repetitive songs in the history of the world. Surely, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall ranks up there, too. Why, after so many listenings (mostly forced) of 12 Days and countless parodies thereof did it finally occur to me that the giver was repeating the previous gifts and adding a new one each day, I don’t know. Perhaps it was putting the lyrics into an Excel spreadsheet that drove home the point. If you came to this realization earlier in life than I, congratulations. You are hereby excused from ever having to hear it again.