The classic Black Friday scene: hundreds wait in line for a discount department store to open its doors, behind which lie limited supplies of affordable gifts, prompting shoppers to storm in and frantically snag the remaining inventory.
'Tis the season of shopping sprees, but don't expect any baseball general manager to be doing the same outside Nashville's Opryland Hotel in advance of the annual Winter Meetings, which start Monday.
That's because it's also the season of sticker shock. The dominos have started to fall this offseason -- in the last 48 hours free agents B.J. Upton and Russell Martin signed, Denard Span was traded and David Wright signed a long-term extension in lieu of a possible trade -- and the early returns indicate a decided markup on costs. Not that this time of year ever fostered bargains, per se, but this year the inflation has been pronounced.
The Braves signed Upton, who has extraordinary talent but also had a sub-.300 on-base percentage this past season, for five years and $75.25 million. The Dodgers and Reds signed relievers Brandon League and Jonathan Broxton, respectively, to three-year deals worth more than $20 million each. The Pirates signed Martin, who batted .211 this season, for two years and $17 million. The Red Sox signed platoon outfielder Jonny Gomes for two years and $10 million. The Cubs signed spot starter and long reliever Scott Feldman for one year and $6 million.
That's not to pan any of those deals. In fact, those are mostly good deals in the new marketplace.
A confluence of factors are to blame for the steep price tags: an influx of national television money for everybody and regional broadcast deals for some; the increasing number of early contract extensions handed out, thereby limiting supply; and the perceived rising value of top prospects, with many organizations seemingly more reluctant to trade packages of minor leaguers for established major leaguers, meaning free agency becomes the more viable option. (For details on just how lucrative some of these television deals are, check the excellent work of Wendy Thurm for FanGraphs.com.)
We must recalibrate our intuitive senses of worth as the game continues to receive an injection of money with a dwindling supply of players available on the open market, with free-agent contracts following the basic macroeconomic tenet that inflation and unemployment are inversely related.
So with all that in mind, what should we expect from this year's Winter Meetings?
Continued inflation. As discussed above, the price of free agents only continues to rise. Agents can use the riches of the forthcoming national TV deal as leverage. Don't be too surprised at some gaudy contract AAVs (average annual value).
Could the outfield dominoes fall? The one position with a normal offseason's worth of talent is in the outfield, and it's possible that Upton's deal established the market enough for others -- Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino, Cody Ross and Ryan Ludwick -- to follow suit. Sure, Torii Hunter already signed with the Tigers, but his was more of a special case of a veteran looking for a short-term contract, unlike the others who are mostly looking for longer deals.
A Winter Meetings eve signing? Each of the past two years a major free agent has signed the night before the official proceedings began. In 2010 Jayson Werth signed his seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals on Sunday night as many attendees were still in transit, a decision repeated in '11 when Jose Reyes signed for six years with the Marlins.
A couple -- but not all -- of the big moves. Long thought to be a fertile time for trades and free-agent signings, given the assemblage of every club decision maker and agent under one hotel roof, the Winter Meetings can be overrated for the number of big moves that happen during the proceedings.
Negotiations between teams or between a team and agent are of course facilitated by the proximity, but it's not like email, text messages, Skype, conference calls and Morse code don't exist. This isn't the only time teams can communicate, of course, and many discussions held at the Winter Meetings lead to transactions later in the offseason. (And a team or agent might use the Winter Meetings as an artificial deadline to evoke the other's best offer.)
Reyes, Werth, Adam Dunn and now Upton are some of the big free agents to have signed before the meetings in the last three offseasons; Prince Fielder and Cliff Lee are two superstars who signed after the meetings.
Riches to rags. Until the final hours of last year's meetings, when the Angels signed both Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the week belonged to the Marlins, who generated daily headlines for their free-agent triumvirate of Reyes, Buehrle and, a few days prior, Heath Bell. Along with their heavy courtship of Pujols, Marlins management generated "the same frenzy and crowds as entourage-ensconced rock stars" any time they walked through the lobby, as this scribe noted last year.
Expect the opposite this year. Miami no longer has any of those three signees on its roster and will be popular this year only with clubs interested in Ricky Nolasco as a back-of-the-rotation starter, given the assurances (whatever those are worth) that young slugger Giancarlo Stanton won't be traded.
Sleeping giant. The Red Sox freed up huge tracts of payroll by moving the gigantic salaries of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers last August. Though Boston doesn't appear to be in on first-tier free agents Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke, it could snag two second-tier players, such as Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher. That may be a more shrewd use of their resources, though the pair would still cost some $125 million or so. The Sox, in part thanks to that Dodgers deal, have enough prospects to swing a trade for a proven player, but they may choose to conserve their resources some if they decide the club is best suited for a transition year before making a more serious run in 2014.
Los Angeles bidding war. And, of course, the other unpredictable giants are both in L.A. Few saw the Angels' double strike of Pujols and Wilson coming last year; after finishing third in the AL West in 2012 and in need of rotation help, look for the Halos to be aggressive in trying to retain Greinke -- and who knows what else? The Dodgers, meanwhile, seem to have unlimited coffers with management unafraid to spend it. They are also reportedly after Greinke, and while other clubs are too, the best bet is that he stays in Southern California.
Might of the Mystery Team. Lee to the Phillies? Pujols to the Angels? Fielder to the Tigers? Those weren't popular predictions, and while the idea of interest from mystery teams is nothing new, it's more pronounced than ever in the Twitter Age of reporting.
Unexpected hilarity. Amidst the long days and nights of rumormongering, some levity helps, such as last year's incident when a man unsuspectingly walked into a hotel fountain.