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Beyond the big three free agents, trades may be where the action is

CHICAGO -- No team is going to spend or presumably improve via free agency like the Yankees did last winter, when they doled out $423.5 million to three star players alone. Post-parade, and as the GM meetings get underway here on Monday, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Yankees spent wisely. But with the Yankees far less needy this winter and this year's free-agent list less star-studded -- Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey are the only in-their-prime players who can reasonably aim for $100 million deals and the only ones even sure to crack $50 million -- no team is expected to try to duplicate such a spending spree. Nor would one even be possible this time around.

While there's no pitching rotation transformer of CC Sabathia's ilk, and some baseball people might contend that there's no everyday player to match Mark Teixeira, either (though Holliday's agent, Scott Boras, uses Teixeira -- who's also his client -- as Holliday's main comp), that doesn't mean that the pursuit of this winter's top trio will be anything less than fascinating. The chances for a quick deal for any star with their incumbent team within the 15-day exclusive negotiating period are never great, but they appear to be especially slight in the case of Holliday, who, like his middle-of-the-order running mate Albert Pujols, doesn't appear to be rushing into a deal with the Cardinals.

Though the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggested that the "framework'' of a contract offer to the 29-year-old Holliday, estimated to be $96 million for six years, has been put forth, Boras said on Sunday that the Cardinals have made no proposals. In cases of star players, Boras won't accept offers below a certain level (with Teixeira it was $160 million just to get into the game), and someone else close to Holliday wondered how such a reported contract bid could reasonably be accepted by Holliday considering that Alfonso Soriano, in some respects a less accomplished and more flawed player, received $136 million for eight years three winters ago from the Cubs. In any case, the chances for Holliday to remain a Cardinal look slim at this point.

Lackey's chances to stay with L.A. don't look all that much better. A source familiar with the Angels' talks with Lackey last spring said they offered less than $40 million over three years as an extension on top of this year's $10 million salary, which would seem to be nowhere near the ballpark that Lackey, 31, seeks now, as by far the best starter in an especially thin crop, and coming off a year in which he demonstrated his usual stuff and toughness. Considering that there are no clear top-of-the-rotation alternatives available via free agency --and that the Yankees are expected to look into pursuing Lackey -- the right-hander is expected to shoot for more than twice that, i.e. a $100 million deal. So for the Angels to re-sign their ace would require a complete rethinking of their original stance.

Of the trio of star free agents, Bay, 31, would seem to have the best chance to return to his incumbent team, as he is on record saying how much he liked playing in Boston, a place that provided a stark contract to Pittsburgh, the perennial also-ran that was his previous stop. Red Sox people believe that Bay wants to stay, too, and they are said to want to try to bring him back on a four-year deal for close to $60 million, according to a source familiar with their thinking. But Bay's agent, Joe Urbon, said in a recent interview with SI.com that he believes his client is the "most complete player on the market.''

If it doesn't work out in Boston, Bay, one of only three sluggers with at least 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs in four of the past five seasons (Pujols and Alex Rodriguez are the others) should have no shortage of suitors. The same goes for Holliday, who, like Bay, is a power-hitting left fielder but with a higher career batting average (.318 to .280) and slightly better playoff pedigree (he was NLCS MVP in 2007, though this year's playoff performance was forgettable). Beyond the Cardinals and Red Sox, the Mets, Giants, Braves, Cubs, Mariners and Yankees could be in the market for either of the two corner outfielders. Some teams have already checked in on Holliday, who is said by a friend to have at least the Yankees, and quite likely the Mets -- who are desperate for a power-hitting outfielder after a disastrous season in which they most often employed possibly the two worst defensive left fielders in baseball (Gary Sheffield and Daniel Murphy) -- high on his list of preferred places, and the Mets are believed to have Holliday higher than Bay on their wish list.

Speculation has been rampant that Lackey would like to go home to Texas to pitch, and while it's believed that Rangers people have appreciated Lackey's attributes from up close, their possible pursuit may depend on the quickness of the sale of the team. MLB has set a tentative Thanksgiving deadline for the sale of the Rangers, but the price tag is expected to be in the $500 million range, and in cases of such big money there are no guarantees that things will go quickly.

Beyond the big three (Holliday, Bay and Lackey), there's a lot going on this winter, and some of it may begin to happen here at the GM meetings, which run Monday-Wednesday at the Hilton O'Hare Airport. While the remainder of the free-agent market lacks panache -- the next-best players are over 35, including World Series heroes Johnny Damon, Andy Pettitte and Hideki Matsui -- a potentially sterling trade market may more than make up for it.

In fact, the trade market may be the most star-studded in years. Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, Marlins power-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla and the Cubs' talented malcontent Milton Bradley all appear to be realistic candidates for trade. (Bradley is more than a candidate; with all that has gone on in Chicago with him, he's a trade necessity.)

Halladay, 31, would seem to be a likely bet to go somewhere, considering he's told the Blue Jays that he won't be staying once his contract expires after 2010, he's probably somewhat annoyed not to have been traded last summer, and the deposed GM J.P. Ricciardi appears to have lost his job partly for botching the fire sale of one of baseball's best pitchers. However, one GM opined that Halladay's value, while down from last summer because only one year remains on his contract, may not fall further from now to the summer trading season. If Halladay goes, the Red Sox, who are probably annoyed to have let the Yankees beat them for Teixeira and seen the Yankees match them with two titles this decade, look like a prime candidate. Last summer they offered Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden, Nick Hagadone and a positional prospect, and while they no longer have Masterson and presumably wouldn't surrender as much now with Halladay a half-year closer to free agency, one way to close the gap on the Yankees would be to acquire Halladay, who's 18-6 lifetime vs. New York.

The Red Sox also look like a candidate to pursue the 27-year-old Gonzalez, whom they coveted last summer before settling on Victor Martinez. Speculation has run high that Boston's chances might have improved with the hiring of new GM Jed Hoyer in San Diego, and while the Padres have steep financial issues, Gonzalez's bargain $4.75 million average salary through 2011 won't break them. The Dodgers are yet another candidate for Gonzalez, and they could start a package with first baseman James Loney, although they know it's going to take a lot more than that.

The Rays got the ball rolling with last week's trade of defensively gifted second baseman Akinori Iwamura (the trade market is moving already, with J.J. Hardy moving from the Brewers to the Twins for Carlos Gomez, and Mark Teahen going from the Royals to the White Sox for Josh Fields and Chris Getz), and they have a potential outfield replacement ready for Crawford in Desmond Jennings. The White Sox will consider dealing Jenks, whose salary is about to increase through arbitration, while the budget-conscious Marlins seem likely to move Uggla, who's probably not worth the $7.5 million he'll get through arbitration, at least not to Florida.

The Mariners are sure to get calls on superstar pitcher Felix Hernandez -- or, as one GM put it, they'll get "hits'' -- since they at least listened to interested teams this summer. But Seattle is telling teams that they intend to spend the winter trying to lock up Hernandez. The Mariners failed in the past to hold on to former superstars Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson -- but they seem serious about doing what they can to keep the 23-year-old right-hander.

• The Yankees have started to think about idea of re-signing both Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. Matsui's MVP performance in the World Series put him back into the picture after the Yankees spent the year assuming that they would keep the DH spot open next year to rotate in Jorge Posada and other older stars. Both players prefer to return, if possible.

• The Brewers and Mariners have interest in Jarrod Washburn, a Wisconsin native who thrived in Seattle under pitching coach Rick Adair before going to Detroit at midseason. Washburn, 35, was hampered by knee trouble in Detroit, which won't re-sign him.

• The Angels might re-sign Chone Figgins for third base. But if they don't, they are expected to consider Adrian Beltre.

• Teahen will play third base for the White Sox, with Gordon Beckham, who looks like a future star, moving to second.

• The Pirates are among the teams looking at Rick Ankiel, who won't return to St. Louis.

• The Rangers will let Hank Blalock leave via free agency and plan to promote top slugging prospect Justin Smoak next year.

• Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson showed that he's a team player by not complaining as Ronnie Belliard started ahead of him in the playoffs. But expect Hudson to leave Los Angeles.

• Executives won't be shocked if the Red Sox look into trading aging stars David Ortiz and Mike Lowell. Although it's going to be difficult to move broken-down, mid-30s sluggers in this market, where free agents include Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, Griffey, Troy Glaus, Carlos Delgado, Sheffield, Matt Stairs and Matsui.

• The Mets have interest in a do-over in their decision to go for Oliver Perez over Randy Wolf on the free-agent market last winter and are expected to make a play for Wolf (though they are stuck with Perez).

• The contract situations of Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd and manager Jim Tracy -- who may be the Executive of the Year and Manager of the Year, respectively -- still aren't settled at the start of the GM meetings. But O'Dowd is expected to be here as Rockies GM, which is probably a good sign.

• Former major league pitcher Victor Zambrano is praying for the safe return of his mother, Elizabeth Mendez Zambrano, after she was kidnapped on Sunday morning at his farm a half hour from the central Venezuela city of Maracay. Venezuela has become a hotbed for kidnapping of relatives of famous ballplayers. Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba's son, Yorvit Jr., was kidnapped this summer, along with his uncle. Young Yorvit was return unharmed after a couple days.

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