It’s fair to say that the 2008 Winter Meetings have been anticipated for some time. After all, the family of baseball and the hordes that write and talk about the game have been traveling to Dallas, Orlando, Nashville, Anaheim, and other locales each December for years now, so four days in Las Vegas has its appeal. I would say that we’ve been joking about this year’s meetings for years, and while the amusement beats the reality-I doubt there will be any stories that open with, “Well, I was down $220 at the craps table, but then Brian Sabean walked up, bought in for $15,000, and proceeded to roll for an hour!”-the fact is, this isn’t a bad place to be, meetings-wise.

What makes it ironic is that in a year when the meetings are being held in a place where dead time can be more easily filled than in almost any other locale, we could very well have four days that leaves no one time to get their aces cracked. Yes, we say this every year, but weeks of stagnant player markets have caused pressure to build in the pipes. Free agents want to sign, owners want to make a big splash, and GMs want to get their 2009 plans put into place. Agents… well, Billy Ray Valentine probably had this one nailed.

It’s not that everything is going to happen this week. After all, Derek Lowe is waiting for CC Sabathia, who is waiting for Mark Teixeira, who for all we know doesn’t want to upstage Barack Obama’s transition process and plans to make his decision after the inauguration. Even without those stars, there are plenty of free agents, especially relievers and bats who can’t field, who need homes. There’s the Rule 5 draft, which despite being gutted in the most recent CBA, keeps producing interesting players each year. (Remember the name Pedro Strop, an infielder-turned-reliever who bounced from the Rockies to the Rangers and was surprisingly left unprotected by the latter.) There’s the trade market, which takes on importance not just for teams wary of signing free agents, but for those who have needs that simply won’t be met by the pool. There are no championship-caliber catchers, third basemen, or center fielders available via free agency, and just a couple of marginal second basemen.

The meetings’ first deal reflects that problem. The Tigers need a catcher and see nothing in the market they can invest in with confidence. The Rangers have a glut of them, thanks to some shrewd trades by Jon Daniels. Gerald Laird, pack your bags. Laird is a marginal starter himself, with so-so power, a poor contact rate, and a career K/BB over three to one. He has a good defensive reputation, and very good statistics, having thrown out 38 percent of the runners trying to steal on him in his career. Some of that may be in the pitchers he’s worked with, such as Kenny Rogers and Vicente Padilla, who hold runners well, so take that figure with a grain of salt. Laird is a stopgap, and at 29, he’s not going to change much. He’s probably better used as part of a solution than as the whole one.

The Tigers didn’t give up the store here. One of the prospects is a 25-year-old who has just 260 professional innings under his belt. Guillermo Moscoso was the Tigers’ tenth-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, and while his performance begs attention-122 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings at two levels last season-his age and level limit his upside. The other prospect, Carlos Melo, won’t even be 18 until February 27, and is a skinny hard-throwing right-hander. Check back in 2012.

For the Rangers, it looks more and more like Taylor Teagarden is going to emerge from their group and be their starter in the long term. Teagarden is by far the best defensive catcher they have, and will be one of the best in baseball once he takes over in Arlington. While the team could find room for Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Max Ramirez, both players-who are marginal catchers with very big bats-would have more value to an organization that will put them behind the plate and live with their defense. That puts Daniels on the spot; he has a team that is emerging as one of the best collections of talent for the 2010s. His job now is to turn that into a baseball team, which means signing the right free agents-next year, in all likelihood-sorting through the gluts at some positions, and bringing along studs Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland in a way that balances their development, their health, and the team’s needs. While I’d rather have his job than, say, Neal Huntington’s, Daniels faces significant challenges in progressing from a strong organization to a championship team. Trading Saltalamacchia and Ramirez will be a critical step in that process.

That’s the kind of move I think we’ll see this week, teams making mid-range deals, not really blockbusters, in order to fill needs and position themselves for either 2009 or the future beyond that. It is my hope that we see some creativity, because that makes the game more interesting. It is also my hope that we see activity beyond what you might call “the usual suspects.” I think the Reds could be a strong sleeper in the NL, and whether they get Jermaine Dye or not, that’s the kind of move I’d like to see them make, something that positions them for success. We’ve seen the White Sox and the Tigers, legacy franchises, restore their team’s place in their cities with success; the Reds could be the next one in line for that.

Think about all the tweeners that are out there, like the Blue Jays, Indians, A’s, Braves, Astros, maybe even the Giants. There are a lot of teams that are currently projected to win 78-85 games that could make one or two moves, especially if they’re NL teams, and change the conversation about them. It’s not clear whether they should-the Blue Jays, in particular, are in a tough spot-but baseball is healthiest when most teams feel like they can progress towards a championship. The AL, so long dominated by a few franchises, is really moving back to that model, with most of its teams either contending or thinking about it. In 2009, only the Orioles, Royals, and maybe the Rangers are rebuilding. That makes for a fun game.

  • Of the 24 free agents offered arbitration by their teams, just two-middle-relievers Darren Oliver and David Weathers-accepted. This strikes me as a significant piece of evidence that teams are not taking risks by offering arbitration to their free agents as long as those players have just about any kind of market value. They almost never go back to their old teams, and Greg Maddux‘s decision to do so a few years back is the exception that doesn’t justify the fear.

  • Speaking of Maddux, he’s retiring. I haven’t felt this way about a player’s departure from the game since Don Mattingly was thrown under a bus by the Yankees. (No, I’m not over it.) Maddux was simply amazing, with a peak performance in 1994 and 1995 that sits comfortably with any two-year peak you can name, and a career that makes him one of the top five starting pitchers in baseball history. He did all of this quietly, with a professional air and an attention to his craft that made him a joy to watch. He had better stuff than he was usually given credit for, but it was what he did with that stuff that made him both entertaining and effective. I’ve never seen a pitcher who had greater command of his arsenal than Maddux did at his peak.

    There’s probably a parlor game, or maybe a senior thesis, in who your favorite pitcher is from this era. Were you a Rocket Guy, Unit Guy, Pedro Guy or Maddux Guy? Me, I was a Maddux Guy, and even though he won’t pitch, I’d like to think I’ll continue to be one.

  • Joe Gordon is now a Hall of Famer. I’m nonplussed. Nothing against Gordon, who was a fantastic and under-appreciated player in his career, but expanding the Hall of Fame to include more players from the over-represented first half of the 20th century isn’t advancing the discussion.

    When the Hall was launched, we had 60 years of baseball history under our belts, and 60 years of players to vote into the Hall. Even a reasonably well-designed system would struggle to catch everyone, and when the powers that be realized that there was a backlog of qualified candidates, they started creating committees to address the problem. This permanently screwed up the Hall’s standards, but that’s not really my point. The point is that in the early days of the system, you needed a second track to cover players who were more or less unknown to the voting pool. It was a good idea executed poorly.

    What should have happened is that after a couple of decades, you would then say that anyone who was a candidate had been considered by both the BBWAA and the various veterans’ committees, and that the second door was now closed. What happened instead was that the VC took on a life of its own, considering not just players the writers had no experience with, the Dan Brouthers of the world, but players the writers passed on 15 times. The writers have made mistakes of omission, but that’s not why you have a second committee. You have that second committee to cover issues created by a flaw in the voting structure. If it doesn’t sunset, you then have a back door with a completely different set of characteristics.

    The VC should have died off 40 or 50 years ago. Instead, it keeps finding players from a time before time to honor, and what that does is skew the Hall even more towards long-dead players at a time when the BBWAA has become as stingy as ever with its vote. It’s long past time to acknowledge that the various committees have done their job, not comment on the quality of their work, and create a one-track path to the Hall for players. (A second track can and should exist for non-players, and consist largely if not entirely of non-player evaluators.) The BBWAA is far from perfect, and their standards have failed to adjust to changes in the game, but you don’t address that with a back door that lets in Joe Gordon, you address it through education of the voting pool.

    I have nothing against Gordon, but the process by which he became a Hall of Famer is terribly flawed. The Veterans Committee should be dissolved forever.

Back with more as the day progresses, over in Unfiltered.