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Winter Meetings preview

According to a friend of Sabathia's, he's waited long and worked hard for this moment, and he does not plan to rush into anything, apparently not even into a market-setting $140-million contract that the Yankees offered -- not when his former Brewers team appears willing to up their initial $100-million bid and two other unknown teams are apparently in the bidding already.

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The friend also said that despite the suggestion of new Yankees' Boss Hal Steinbrenner that Sabathia's mega $140-million offer won't be there "forever,'' and Yankees GM Brian Cashman's plan to meet with Sabathia before arriving in Las Vegas, neither the Yankees nor any of the other three interested teams has yet suggested, indicated or otherwise hinted that they are about to press him for a quick answer. Cashman will do his best to gauge whether Sabathia is serious about New York, but it's probably too early to ask for the ultimate answer from their preeminent target.

There's no reason to offend the one pitcher who carries the potential to do no less than what he did last summer for the Brewers: transform a rotation, and a franchise.

That friend also suggested there have been more than just the two known bidders -- the anxious Yankees and just-as-anxious Brewers -- in the game for some time. Two bids from two other undisclosed teams came in before Thanksgiving, the friend said. So Sabathia is apparently pretty good at keeping secrets, among his other obvious attributes. Those teams still remain a mystery today. But it's reasonable to believe there's more interest out there for one of the game's two best pitchers (along with Johan Santana) than just his former team and one other.

I don't blame anyone who takes a couple months to make what might be a life-changing decision. After all, 29 out of 30 teams aren't exactly rushing into free-agent deals, either, with the obvious exception being the Giants, and no one's blaming the slow-moving teams.

Things might not turn around as soon as people start arriving at the meetings on Sunday night, but they'll surely start to loosen up. My own theory for the slow-moving market is that while teams still have plenty of money, the industry is doing better than almost any other and the bulk of the teams' revenues are already locked in for 2009, a lot of owners are simply afraid to dive in when they're still hoping that the free-agent market takes a sudden nosedive to parallel the U.S. economy.

I don't believe baseball's salaries will dive. And eventually, the teams will dive in.

The evidence is limited so far mainly to what the Giants have done. And based on aging shortstop Edgar Renteria getting $18.5 million for two years after a year in which he played shortstop in slow motion, I'd say that the better free agents don't have too much to worry about. The Tigers, who have no other shortstop alternatives, wouldn't even risk offering Renteria arbitration, even after word leaked out the Giants appeared ready to sign him and the great likelihood was that the Tigers would have won two draft choices awarded teams that lose free agents to whom they'd offered arbitration.

Needless to say, with an impressive list of free agents available and teams anxious to make trades, there's plenty of action left to go this winter. Some of it will occur at the gambling capital of the world.

Here are some of the biggest topics on the eve of one of the most anticipated winter meetings in years, with the "Big Three'' still available (no, not that big three, but Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Manny Ramirez).

Beyond the fact it appears he will take his time, and make a lot of money, he could get some enhanced offers as we go. That the Yankees' market-setting $140-million bid has sat there for weeks has led to a lot of understandable speculation that the Vallejo, Calif. native (and lover of Southern California, as well) is only waiting for one of his preferred West Coast teams to jump in. And while there may be some truth to that (his family is said to want him close to home), there's more going on here than just that. The incumbent Brewers, for one, aren't likely giving up. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio is said be enthralled by Sabathia and willing to stretch as far as their small-market dollars will go, which means they aren't done bidding after the Yankees blew by their $100-million proposal by 40 big ones.

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The two interested mystery teams aren't known, but it shouldn't shock anyone if the Giants get involved since they are involved with almost everything so far and it makes sense not to pass up an opportunity to lure a hometown hero for an under-market contract and finally get that nine-figure pitching contract right. As of today, the Dodgers look like they have too Manny needs (pun intended) and no inclination go crazy for one pitcher, and the Angels still say Teixeira is their first priority. Ultimately, the Yankees will probably do whatever it takes -- though it might not happen as early as Las Vegas -- and probably win the game's biggest pitching prize.

Last year's non-hitting, non-contending team appears intent on getting back in the game they played so well for years before several bad drafts dragged them down. They have a new managing partner, Bill Neukom, and an anxious ownership group that wants to get back to the winning ways established in the '90s by previous top partner Peter Magowan. Sure, none of their new players is a megastar (they signed relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry to go with Renteria). But while the generous organization that paid for its own stadium and gave $126 million to Barry Zito can't be ruled out for the big play, it's hard to imagine them affording to go dollar-to-dollar with the Yankees or believing that any offer south of Zito's whopping deal could reasonably lure Sabathia.

The Nationals, who are looking for fans as well as wins, are expected to make a bid to try to blow the field away for the almost hometown kid from an hour away in Severna Park, Md. A Nationals person said their priority is to find a left-handed slugger, and there's no better one than Teixeira. They probably also wouldn't mind tweaking Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who hasn't exactly made friends with his neighbor and has coveted Teixiera since he starred in high school about three miles from Camden Yards. Still, most folks still see the incumbent Angels as the slight favorite to keep him, with the Red Sox also a major factor and the winning bid expected to hit or exceed $160 million over eight years. Owner Arte Moreno and manager Mike Scioscia are said to love Teixeira (though some of their baseball people might actually prefer a run at CC), and the guess is that Moreno will outbid the Red Sox, Yankees and other East Coast suitors. The Red Sox are said willing to consider moving Mike Lowell in the spring to accommodate Teixeira. But that sounds very messy. The Yankees loom as a threat, too, especially if they start to sense that Sabathia won't go to New York under any circumstance.

It appears he's going to have to be patient. The Dodgers, the team that badly needs him, isn't anxious to spend yet. And at 36, even after his superhuman saving of the Dodgers' season, he appears to be a fallback option for a couple big spenders, including the Angels and his hometown Yankees (he's from Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, just across the East River from the Bronx), who can't be counted out here, either. While Ramirez doesn't crave to go home like Sabathia, he does admire the dollar, and has said -- and shown -- he's ready to go the highest bidder, whomever that may be.

Shortstop extraordinaire Rafael Furcal could be the first big-name free-agent to sign. Furcal took a tour in Oakland without saying anything bad about that city (his agent, Paul Kinzer, said he was "fine'' with Oakland, which shows that not all agents gush inappropriately), and saw Renteria take his other Bay Area option away.

They brought back their own fine reliever-turned-starter Ryan Dempster and have been attached to Raul Ibanez, Bobby Abreu, Furcal and ballyhooed trade target Jake Peavy, but some agents are getting the idea they may not be rushing into any more big deals, not while the ownership situation remains unsettled. And imagine what it must be like to try to sell a billion-dollar team these days, when nobody's even buying a car. One competing owner said he could see the Cubs, who are shopping Jason Marquis, even trying to cut budget.

The market for closers will open up, but maybe not immediately. The Mets are the one major-market team desperately seeking a closer, and they appear to be in no hurry to set the market. They have four very nice options to weigh, and it appears they will take the meetings to meet with most of those options. The options include two major save record holders and are, in order 1) single season save champion Francisco Rodriguez, 2) hard-throwing left-hander Brian Fuentes, 3) even harder-throwing Kerry Wood, and 4) a combo of all-time save record holder Trevor Hoffman and new Colorado Rockie Huston Street, whom they've been pursuing (they offered Aaron Heilman straight-up for Street, and the New York Post reported that the Rockies countered with a request that lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano be thrown in; but one person familiar with the talks said things seem to be "loosening up'' a bit on the trade front).

Mariners closer J.J. Putz could be a fifth option, but previous targets Bobby Jenks of the White Sox and Jose Valverde of the Astros appear to be long shots now. Waiting in the wings are the Indians, Rangers and a couple other small-to-medium spenders to grab the best leftovers. The Brewers could also become players for a closer if they can't lure Sabathia back into the fold.

Little has been said about a pretty decent market for slugging outfielders. While nobody's going to find a star center fielder (or even a starting center fielder) out there, there are some pretty productive corner outfielders, led by Adam Dunn (40 homers five straight seasons), Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez. Though Ibanez is seen as a chic pick and a "late bloomer,'' and appears to be drawing the most early interest, his career doesn't come close to matching the other three, especially Abreu, whose weaknesses have been overanalyzed in New York (so what if he won't crash into walls? It's helped keep him healthy). The truth is Abreu's been one of the most productive players in the game. Not only he is one of three players with 100 RBIs each of the last six seasons (joining the game's two best players, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols) but Abreu is also one of only three players in baseball history with 200 homers, 300 steals and a .400 on-base percentage. The others are Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson. It's uncertain whether any of this quartet of producers finds their deal as early as the Winter Meetings, but eventually all of them should attract solid interest.

Burnett is a terrific talent who's drawn several four-year offers and whose agent, Darek Braunecker, says has a five-year bid as well. The main players appear to be the Yankees, Orioles, Nats, Jays and Braves. The Nats can't be ruled out as a five-year bidder, but the new favorite appears to be the Braves, who already made a bold trade this week with the White Sox for starting pitcher Javier Vazquez and are looking for more after seeing their once-vaunted rotation decimated by age and injury in 2008. The Braves' first offer was said to be for four years and a vesting option for a fifth, but eventually they may accede to the full five.

While he's 35, he's also consistent, durable and clutch and won at least 12 games each of the past seven seasons. Beyond that, executives with teams chasing him, remarked that Lowe has "turned his life around,'' which sounds like a pretty nice recommendation. With few knocks against him, he has an asking price of $18 million over at least five years and about 10 teams chasing him. But he seems to miss the East Coast intensity. That could mean the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets and Phillies are the favorites, with his former team, the Red Sox, perhaps eyeing a return to pitch in baseball's most-heated rivalry. Cashman visited with Lowe's agent, Scott Boras, on Thursday and expressed "heavy interest.'' What that means is that the Yankees haven't quite hit the magic number yet.

The Padres will keep trying to trade the former Cy Young winner. But perhaps they missed their best chance when they couldn't quite agree on a deal with the Braves a few weeks back. It's possible that Atlanta could get back into it if it fails to land Burnett. But recently, the Padres most oft-stated option is the Cubs, a team that may not be sure whether it can go ahead with a monstrous trade like that due to its unsettled ownership situation. It appears now that there's an outside possibility that the Padres could be stuck with Peavy. Ah well, there are worse fates than that.