The rumor mill is already grinding away, and Chris Kahrl is hard at work analyzing the big trades of the last week. As baseball preps for its big Winter Meetings shindig, Will’s Mill gets back to doing what it does best–reporting what’s making its way around baseball’s whisper wire.

There’s one word that seems to keep popping up in the recent rumors, and that word is “reset.” As in, “reset the market.” The weak free-agent crop led first to a bunch of trades for premier players and a redistribution of two things that always have a market: big contracts and hot prospects. There figures to be more action before the Meetings and it could be that the Meetings themselves will be more active than they have been over the past couple years.

  • B.J. Ryan got one of the best birthday–his 29th–presents ever when he received what, according to some reports, was as much as a five-year, $47-million offer from the Blue Jays. The reasons behind the reported deal, whatever it turns out to be, are known only to the Jays. Whatever their reasons, it seems that teams are willing to overpay for certainty in this market. Granted, Ryan is uncertain–wouldn’t you love to have the PECOTA on Ryan about now?–but what this does is raise the likely value of other deals, much in the same way that the Kris Benson and Russ Ortiz deals did a year ago.

    The Jays seem to be throwing down a “statement signing,” just as the Tigers did a few years ago with Fernando Vina. The Jays are pursuing A.J. Burnett and Brian Giles, two players they have the inside track on due to their new, higher budget, but the Ryan deal re-set those offers as well. Burnett was expected to come in at five years and $70 million, but you could argue that Burnett is twice the pitcher that Ryan is because of the innings he pitches (even though VORP is closer than you’d expect with Ryan up 33.1 to 25.2 last season).

    There’s a dynamic this winter where teams are willing to overpay or even bypass negotiation to get a deal done now. “There’s no second choice, no backup plan for most of these teams,” an NL executive told me. “If you miss your guy, you’re stepping down and then you have to look at your own system.” That seeming lack of creativity is making the job more difficult for some and very easy for others. Another executive told me that the Jays offer would shake some new people loose. “Teams are changing their projections for arbitration offers and they may be forced to trade a guy they may not have wanted to or take a bit less [in return] than they would have previously to make him fit in someone else’s budget.”

  • The Cubs have been much more active this offseason. Held hostage last year by the Sammy Sosa situation, Jim Hendry has no such problem this season. He’s working backwards on the priority list, fixing the bullpen, then looking for power, and hoping to solve his team’s problems at shortstop and leadoff with one fell swoop. The Cubs won’t get everything they want, but at this stage, they’re the favorites for picking up Rafael Furcal, Juan Pierre and Milton Bradley (who figures to be a Dodger non-tender and is someone who doesn’t scare Dusty Baker.) Rumors are swirling that the Cubs could deal for Alfonso Soriano and Kevin Mench, spinning off several pitching prospects in that deal and for Pierre, something the Cubs can do and still have a couple of live arms around, TNSTAAPP be damned. The Cubs won’t get it all done, but they’ll spend enough to make sure they have a couple of premium guys to show that the White Sox aren’t the only winning team in town.
  • Is the Jim Thome deal a good one for the World Champs or a mega-bust? That remains to be seen, though I’ve heard some convincing arguments on both sides. What it means for the Sox now is that they’re working hard to finish up what figures to be an important, but short off-season checklist. They’ll likely part ways with Paul Konerko by the time the Winter Meetings close next week, opening the door to Frank Thomas‘ return at DH. Don’t expect much more change, though the Sox will try and sign some better bench players once the market has shaken out.

    So where does this leave Konerko? The White Sox offer isn’t going to get it done, so the slugger will take his ring and head west. The Angels and Dodgers will compete for him, and the Red Sox could make a late run if they free up salary space with some other deals. The Angels want to be in on the Manny Ramirez sweepstakes and sources think that the Angels would be willing to take on more of his remaining contract than most teams will.

  • The Diamondbacks are likely to get a bit more active. They want a catcher and are likely to grab whoever’s left after the Mets get the first choice. The team would love to get Paul Lo Duca, but the Marlins say they can’t get a good read on what the team thinks about its top prospects. Chad Tracy and Troy Glaus are being quietly shopped, but not aggressively. As Josh Byrnes and his team settle in, expect evolution, not revolution.
  • Don’t be surprised when Billy Wagner gets a third offer this week from an unlikely team. The Braves aren’t sold on their ability to get by without a closer, and like the Red Sox a few years ago with Keith Foulke, they’re willing to pay to get some certainty. The money freed up by Chipper Jones‘ contract restructuring was intended for Furcal, though Jones won’t be upset to see a fellow good ol’ boy down in the pen, if it works out. Kyle Farnsworth will be allowed to return to Detroit, though it’s unclear if the Braves have a Plan B. Everyone will be watching Roger McDowell, the new Braves pitching coach, very closely.
  • What do the Marlins have left if they deal away Juan Pierre? Paul Lo Duca is a possibility to either the Diamondbacks or the Mets. Luis Castillo is likely to stay, mostly because he’s relatively cheap and won’t bring much in return. It will be interesting to see if we see some cheap vets brought in to cover up the holes left by trades, or if they’ll trot out this year’s versions of Josh Booty and Chuck E. Carr.
  • For all the talk about the Jays and their new checkbook, no one’s paying much attention to the Royals. They have a couple extra digits to work with, but the team doesn’t seem likely to go after the elite players or offer elite salaries. Getting any players to want to come to K.C. is likely to take a bit of overpayment or some serious pitches. The team is simply bad, and thus far isn’t after even the second-tier players like Kevin Millwood or Matt Morris who might help most.
  • If you expected Brian Giles to take the money that the Cardinals had available after Larry Walker retired, you’re not alone. The Cardinals are so used to players taking a bit less than market value to play in St. Louis that it caught them a bit off guard when Giles’ agents kept saying he’d take the best offer. The backup plan for the Cards appears to be Jacque Jones, with the savings going into a pitcher to replace Morris. They’re also likely to grab Octavio Dotel on the cheap, as the righty comes off Tommy John surgery. Giles? He could go full circle, returning to the Indians by the Meetings.
  • In light of the new testing policy and the ongoing BALCO situation–and yes, the outcome of the appeal by the government to use the seized samples is being watched very closely all over the baseball world–it’s getting tougher for players to know what’s legal and what’s not. There are only two supplements that I recommend to my pitchers, and I recently had them tested at IUPUI to make sure that they would pass the newest regulations. They did, but baseball really needs to watch this. Players are scared to take even protein shakes and, combined with the amphetamine ban, players are struggling to maintain their physical condition. Fatigued players are ones in danger of further injury. If anything, I expect the DL time we see in ’06 to go up. (For the record, the two supplements are Muscletech products: GAKIC and CEE-Pro.)
  • If Manny Ramirez is just being Manny, is it just Omar Minaya being Omar when he goes after the outfielder for what seems to be the tenth time? Ramirez signed his megadeal with the Red Sox last time we were in Dallas, and his tenure with the Sox could end there as well. The Mets would have salary room if they miss out on Wagner. Their catching situation is probably next on the list of things to get done with offers out to at least three catchers and one trade discussed (Lo Duca).
  • The Red Sox “Gang of Four” has done amazing work bringing in an ace. Their rotation stacks up now as Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Jon Papelbon and … well, what comes after that? Matt Clement has been mentioned in a couple of possible deals, to Texas and Milwaukee–both unlikely–but with David Wells headed west and Curt Schilling as much of a question mark in 2006 as he was in 2005, there are still big rotation questions for the Sox to answer. Tim Wakefield is still an anchor. The Sox still hope to have a GM in position by the Meetings, but the GM will fit the system, not the other way around.
  • Paul Byrd is one of the second-tier pitchers who some think could be a free-agent bargain. The Mazzone pupil has had a couple good seasons without his mentor, but may be reunited with him in Baltimore. The Orioles have offered Byrd a two-year deal totaling around $12 million, with bonuses and an option on a third year. Mazzone is known to be looking to shore up the rotation with veterans while he installs his system. Kevin Millwood is likely to be a tougher sign than Byrd. Carl Pavano, believe it or not, is a trade possibility.
  • Pavano has also been mentioned as part of a blockbuster package to the Mariners that would bring Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees. Don’t count on it. Ichiro is an icon, and M’s ownership knows that winning would help smooth over a lot of things between their star and Mike Hargrove.
  • Two aging superstars are just hoping to land somewhere, let alone bring in the big bucks and attention they once got. Pushed out of New York, Mike Piazza is an interesting option for the A’s at DH and backup catcher, but he’s more likely to end up back in L.A. as part of the “true blue coup.” Nomar Garciaparra wanted to return to the Cubs, and while that’s still a small possibility, he’s another that’s likely to end up with checks signed by Peter Angelos.
  • Some D.C. sources are thinking that the Commissioner is holding out for Stan Kasten to join a group for the Nationals ownership. The stadium lease is likely to end up needing more assistance from baseball. It’s hard to argue with how the Expos/Nats situation has been handled from a business perspective. Maybe Neil deMause has a better answer, but I have no idea how this could have been handled differently and provided a better return on the investment. It certainly gives a model for how the Marlins could be handled over the next few seasons. The difference, of course, is RFK. In a town that can build the Wynn in two years, a stadium could be built in half that. I’m expecting Oscar Goodman and Elvis to make an appearance at the Meetings again this year.

  • David Eckstein married an actress? That doesn’t really go with his image…until you find out that Ashley Drane stars on “Blue Collar TV.” That fits.

I’ll be back with Will’s Mill updates as necessary and during the Winter Meetings, BP will have full coverage from on site. We’ll also be doing radio work with the crew at each day. I’ll have more details on that for you next time!

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