LAKE BUENA, VISTA, Fla. -- Baseball's Winter Meetings got off to a rousing start even before they officially began on Monday. Jayson Werth signed the most under-the-radar -- and, some might claim, over-the-top -- $126 million contract in baseball annals. New Mets GM Sandy Alderson said as much, when he cracked about Washington's deficit and also suggested the Werth deal made some of the Mets' old deals look "pretty good.'' And not long after Werth's stunning deal, which GM Mike Rizzo aptly called "monumental'' in Washington history, the Red Sox and superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez found enough common ground for Boston to sign off on their four-prospect trade with the Padres.
Some might take exception as to whether Werth was worth it (MLB bigwigs were said to be apoplectic over the deal), but few could disagree with the Red Sox-Padres swap, which solved Boston's need for a big bat and got San Diego started on a rebuilding process with blue-chip prospects Casey Kelly (an athletic right-handed pitcher), left-handed-hitting power first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and speedy outfielder Reymond Fuentes, Carlos Beltran's cousin whose tools much more closely resemble Jacoby Ellsbury's. One GM wondered if San Diego might have added "at least one major leaguer'' but it wasn't a bad haul considering Gonzalez had only one year left on his contract and an arm in a sling following offseason shoulder surgery.
The Red Sox and Gonzalez do not have an official agreement on a new deal, but people in the know said they have worked out the parameters and the new contract was expected to be for about $160 million over seven years, on top of his $6.2 million 2011 salary, bringing the grand total to close to $170 million, which is exactly what Boston bid for Mark Teixeira two winters ago before being outbid by the Yankees by $10 million. Gonzalez, who consistently put up monster numbers in the game's worst hitters stadium (PETCO Park) and with very little lineup protection, saved the day for Boston, which also had sought Werth, and understood it was running well behind in the bidding for its own third baseman, Adrian Beltre, who's talking to the A's, Angels, Orioles and another team or two.
Sunday was a nice warmup, and it'll be tough to top. But the elements are there. "It's going to be a wild week,'' one assistant GM said. There is a lot of money in the game, a few exceptional free agents and a long list of other available hopefuls, only one bona fide superstar starting pitcher and some teams with obvious needs. Here are some of the biggest players here at Disney, which may become an even happier place for several of these fellows.
1. Cliff Lee. The top difference-maker on this year's market is a proven winner who appeals to the Yankees because he dominates October and he dominates them. The Rangers are the stalking horse. The American League champions are promoting camaraderie and proximity to baseball's greatest clutch pitcher, and there are whispers around the game that Lee might prefer to stay in a clubhouse where he was comfortable and a mere 4½ hours from his home in Little Rock, Ark. But few believe the Yankees will lose a race for the player they've been targeting for a year. Their failure to land him at the trade deadline only makes them want him more, and the Yankees usually do not lose players they want this badly. "The Steinbrenners aren't going to let Lee get away this time,'' one competing GM opined. The Rangers are giving it a game effort, and they have a favorable tax situation (luxury and U.S. taxes) on their side, but are thought unlikely to go beyond five years for the star left-hander. It's still hard to imagine an ending in which Lee isn't donning the pinstripes.
Prediction: Yankees, $150 million, six years.
2. Carl Crawford. This splendid athlete is fortunate enough to be pursued by the Angels, Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox -- though the Rangers will be out if they are lucky enough to land Cliff Lee. The Yankees have a chance to secure both players, and can't ever be counted out, but they have no real outfield hole, and their pursuit might at least lose its urgency if they lock up Lee. The Tigers, Astros and several more may be in the bidding for the superb runner and defender who showed he could thrive in the No. 3 hole in the second half last year and seems ready to show more power. Two people close to Crawford say they'd be surprised if he chose Boston over the Angels, Rangers or Yankees, but those are merely opinions. The buzz is that the Angels are most likely to win this big-time derby. At 29, Crawford is two years younger than Jayson Werth, so his price might have just gone up.
Prediction: Angels, $144 million, eight years.
3. Adrian Beltre. The A's were said to be acting like they were about to give up after Beltre ignored their reported $64 million, five-year offer for at least two weeks. He is believed to seek a contract comparable to the one the Angels bestowed on Torii Hunter, which was $90 million over five years. Beltre said recently at David Ortiz's bowling party he'd like to return to Boston, but the Adrian Gonzalez deal makes that seem somewhat improbable, if it wasn't already. The Rangers are another team that likes Beltre but it doesn't appear he fits there as they are currently constituted, with six-time All-Star Michael Young manning the hot corner. This is a tough one to handicap.
Prediction: Angels, $75 million, five years.
4. Paul Konerko. He and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf have such a close relationship it's hard to imagine Konerko leaving the South Side of Chicago, especially for Baltimore, which appears to be his second most viable option. Agent Craig Landis meets Tuesday with White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn here to figure out the numbers. If Konerko wants three more years, it's hard to see the Sox not doing that, at about $13 million per year, just slightly south of what Adam Dunn got from the Sox on a per-year basis when he signed his four-year, $56 million deal with them last week.
5. Rafael Soriano. There hasn't been much buzz about this terrific closer. It's not necessarily a great closer market, but Soriano had such a superb season (AL-leading 45 saves, 1.73 ERA) he should still do well. The Angels could use him. The Rangers and Red Sox might consider him, as well, especially if Texas makes Neftali Feliz a starter (that seems unlikely now) or the Red Sox find a taker for Jonathan Papelbon. It's a funny closer market with Papelbon and Cincinnati's Francisco Cordero available in trade, and Bobby Jenks nontendered by the White Sox due to a potentially high arbitration number, flattening breaking ball and rounding body. The Nationals look like they have a future closer in Dew Storen, but they can never be counted out of anything at this point.
Prediction: Angels, $40 million, three years. (note: it is highly unlikely the Angels will get three big-time free agents, but they look like a possible favorite in each individual case.)
1. Darek Braunecker. He is a star here with Cliff Lee, his Arkansas neighbor and client, being the player most likely to impact pennants in the next few years. Don't let his down-home, easy-going nature fool you, as he's managed to secure well over $100 million for talented but enigmatic right-hander A.J. Burnett.
2. Scott Boras. Folks were raving abut the Werth contract, which beat the target, Matt Holliday's $120 million, seven-year deal of a year ago. It's hard to understand when a player beats the goal, but it does happen on occasion. Boras also represents Beltre, Soriano and close to 20 free agent players overall, including some former big-time stars such as Manny Ramirez, Magglio Ordoñez and Johnny Damon.
3. Greg Genske, Brian Peters and Scott Parker. Legacy Sports has Crawford, and they've prepared a video of this four-time All-Star for your viewing pleasure. Crawford will become the first speed merchant to exceed $100 million, and he will do it by a large margin. The Angels need help near the top of their lineup, and he seems to fit them perfectly. The Red Sox and Yankees both love him (don't they always loved the same players?). This trio got the deal for Adam Dunn and also has free agents Orlando Hudson, Brad Penny and Jeremy Bonderman.
4. Craig Landis. This Californian has represented a lot of pitchers in his day, including recently re-signed Dodger Jon Garland, and he has Konerko again. Konerko passed up bigger bucks last time in Anaheim and Baltimore to stay with the White Sox, and he'll likely return to the place he's called home since 1999.
5. Casey Close. He's fresh off the protracted, soap-operatic Derek Jeter negotiations, which ended with a creative and complex deal that guarantees Jeter at least $56 million over four your years if he exercises the fourth-year player option, and $51 million over three if he does not. Close still has a couple interesting cases here. Derrek Lee is a fine first baseman coming off by far his worst year but may be a great signing for someone. And Scott Downs is a terrific set-up man who could help any team in baseball.
1. Mike Rizzo, Nationals. He might have a scout's background, but he's made the biggest deal so far, in Werth. Rizzo wasn't apologizing for a signing that put Washington on the free agent mind. "It is a lot of money,'' Rizzo said. "But elite players get a lot of money.'' Rizzo clearly isn't done, either. He appears to have his sites on free-agent pitcher Carl Pavano, and he endeavors to repair a rotation in need (at least until Stephen Strasburg returns, probably in 2012). "We're going to be active and aggressive this winter," Rizzo said. The Nationals-owning Lerner family has a lot of financial heft but until now has come up short on the biggest free agents. They've tried to use that in the past (Teixeira, for instance) but couldn't get the better players to even consider Washington before, so from that standpoint, this is a step in the right direction. Carlos Peña, the slick-fielding power-hitting first baseman who slumped to .196 last year in Tampa, is also on Rizzo's radar.
2. Brian Cashman. The Yankees are really run by the triumvirate of Cashman plus owner Hal Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine, but Cashman's excellent rapport with his bosses has gained their trust. He perhaps got a little bit feisty with his public comments about Jeter, but he was showing his competitive side. Lee is the big fish, but Cashman also seeks to augment their bullpen. Kerry Wood was an excellent pickup last year, and Pedro Feliciano has been mentioned.
3. Tony Reagins. Club owner Arte Moreno was said to be upset about the team's uncharacteristically poor showing in 2010, and while the Angels have been very selective about free agency in the past, they may be more inclined to reach out following one of their rare bad years in which they finished below .500 for the first time since 2003. Crawford looks like the most obvious target, especially with the beloved Hunter providing his seal of approval. They also need help at third base and in the 'pen.
4. Kenny Williams. He's always a threat to do something big. Dunn solved their pressing need for a left-handed bat, and A.J. Pierzynski, who was very close to leaving for the Dodgers, filled their potential catching hole. Konerko is really the project of Reinsdorf and Hahn. There's a chance they could trade Gavin Floyd in a market where pitching, even barely better than average pitching, draws deep interest. But a colleague said Williams "isn't shopping Floyd'' and pointed out they will likely employ reliever Chris Sale in a starting job while Jake Peavy is shelved, so they aren't looking to weaken their rotation.
5. Billy Beane, A's. So far the Moneyball star is having trouble getting players to take the A's money, and it's said to be bothering him. They reportedly offered Lance Berkman a two-year deal before he went to the Cardinals for one, and have had an offer to Beltre hanging out there for weeks. Moneyball was supposed to be about finding bargains, not tying -- and failing -- to overspend. He's an extremely bright man with a good stable of execs, so nobody should bet against them. But so far they are coming up with goose eggs.
• The Diamondbacks are still talking to the Orioles about a trade involving Mark Reynolds. Arizona is interested in Chris Tillman and young relievers to rebuild its 'pen. New GM Kevin Towers specializes in the bullpen, and is making that his area of major concern.
• The chances for a Justin Upton trade now appear to be just about nil. The value of a young stud outfielder with a $51 million contract has to be high (considering Werth, eight years his senior, got $75 million more than that), and Towers has judged what he could get for Upton and determined they will fill their needs in other ways.
• The Cubs and Nationals are considering Carlos Peña.
• The Nationals, who are in on a lot of folks, are looking at recovering starter Brandon Webb. "He's a bigger gamble than Chris Young or Jeff Francis at this point,'' one scout said of the former Cy Young winner who has pitched just one game since the end of the 2009 season because of shoulder problems. But Rizzo, a former Diamondbacks employee, loves him from his days in Arizona. He may be competing with the Cubs on that front, too.
• The Mets are looking at Chris Young and Jeff Francis.
• Baltimore, Boston and Philly were the other teams in on Werth. But Philly only offered about "Jason Bay money,'' or close to $66 million over four years (in this case, it was believed to be $64 million over four).
• Mariano Rivera's deal, which was for exactly $15 million a year, has an AAV of $14.7 million due to some deferred monies. Derek Jeter also had some deferred monies in his deal.
• Jason Bartlett, a fine shortstop, should help the Rays begin to rebuild their 'pen if he is moved in a trade. The Cardinals are among teams to have shown interest, and if they were to get Bartlett, Ryan Theriot could become a super utility player and aid their depth. The Giants earlier showed interest in Bartlett and the Orioles, Pirates, Padres and Angels could make some sense.
• The Brewers and Blue Jays made a second trade with each other, and it was an interesting one, with top Brewers prospect Brett Lawrie, a fine hitter, going to Toronto for very solid proven starter Shaun Marcum. Milwaukee desperately needs pitching, and there doesn't appear to be much evidence they will trade Prince Fielder to get it.