DALLAS – The winter meetings kick off here today, with anticipation that they will be the most active meetings in some time. I’ve attended four of these, and I think I’ve heard similar tales at each of the other three. The early start to this offseason–a couple of major free agents are off the market, four or five major trades have been executed, and at least one team is in the midst of a fire sale–may mean the meetings live up to the hype this time.

Here are some of the things I’m thinking about as the week opens:

  • Peter Gammons mentioned that the Red Sox have a 26-person contingent here, in lieu of an actual general manager. The absence of anyone with that title didn’t stop them from making the Josh Beckett deal, however, and they continue to work on deals and negotiate with free agents without anyone designated as the top dog.

    I think the Red Sox have backed into something here. The future of the general manager job is not the imperial GM, a role that goes back to Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey and extends today to personalities like Billy Beane and John Schuerholz. As the industry matures, the GM role does too, beyond the capabilities of any one man into something better handled by a team of experts, each with a different speciality. So you’ll have a performance analyst, and then a skills analyst, someone who likely has the title of “scouting director” or “director of player personnel.” You’ll need an expert in the game’s rules and in the minutiae of contracts, often the same person for both jobs; finally, you’ll want a media-friendly face heading the group, because media relations, for better or worse, are a critical part of the job.

    What the Devil Rays are doing in Tampa seems like an indication of what the future will bring. Gerry Hunsicker is the veteran face on a front office that includes Andrew Friedman, among others, each bringing a variety of talents to the table, each contributing to the decisions that get made. The Red Sox may not have Theo Epstein, but they have a number of smart and talented people like Jed Hoyer and Bill Lajoie, each bringing their own knowledge to bear on decisions.

    The “team GM” trend is something I think you’ll see grow within the game, because it’s the best way to manage the responsibilities of a complicated job and advance the interests of the ballclub.

  • It looks like crazy has left the building, at least some parts of it. After the early signings made it look as if there were going to be no rational contracts handed out this winter, we’ve seen some deals reached that almost look like bargains. Brian Giles stayed in San Diego for a three-year, $30-million commitment from the team, a clear hometown discount given that he had at least some four-year offers for similar money, and a rumored five-year contract on the table as well. Paul Byrd, who looked likely to be one of the few bargains out there this winter, is headed to the Indians for two years and $14 million, which looks great in comparison to the money left on the deals signed last winter by free-agent pitchers, or even the Esteban Loaiza contract.

    I’m very impressed by the imminent Rafael Furcal deal, which looks like three years and $39 million. The Dodgers are showing an understanding of a key element of free-agent signing: it’s often not the money in the deal but the length, and a shorter commitment that involves the same number of dollars you might spend in a longer one is often a better deal for the team.

    Furcal is a good, not great, player, and he’s probably better suited to bat anywhere but leadoff. He has very good power for a shortstop, but his walk rates are average and he’s not a .300 hitter. Batting him second would be a better use of his skill set. The Dodgers will get his age 28-30 seasons and have no commitment to him past that; it’s a terrific contract for them, and shows an understanding of the limits of player projection. Three years out is about as far as you can project any player, and even that’s going to have a fair amount of uncertainty attached to it.

    There’s still plenty of crazy out there, though, especially if you’re a reliever. Kyle Farnsworth had a 4.73 ERA in 2004, and was essentially given away to the Tigers last year. He gets a three-year deal for $17 million. Tom Gordon just completed three straight healthy seasons for the first time since the Clinton Administration. The Phillies are betting $6 million a year he can have three more, at ages 38-40. We still haven’t seen A.J. Burnett sign, and that deal is probably going to put last winter’s silliness to shame.

  • There are a number of teams flying well under the radar, who are either not doing anything or doing a great job of keeping their movements quiet. The Tigers haven’t come up much, nor have the Braves or Nationals. The Cardinals and Astros haven’t really been heard from, nor have the Rockies. My guess is at least one of these teams, probably the Cardinals, makes a big splash this week. Walt Jocketty remains a wildly underrated GM.
  • There are a ton of Manny Ramirez rumors in play. I should write what I’ve been saying on radio for some time now: I basically ignore any rumor involving the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets. Really. My accuracy rate is well over 99%; if you think about it, almost every story that gets floated about these teams is the product of a media/news ratio far in excess of national safety guidelines. When you have that much media feeding rabid fan bases, all kinds of silly things are going to grow legs and run.

    Maybe Manny Ramirez will be traded…this time. But until it happens, I’m sticking with the Northeast Corridor Theory and ignoring the chatter.

Be sure to catch Will Carroll and I on MLB Radio all week long, and check in at Baseball Prospectus as Will and I keep you abreast on everything that’s going on.

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