The GM meetings are what the Winter Meetings used to be: a chance for the sport's illuminati to gather, mingle, gossip, booze and, if the voyeurs snooping on their little party are lucky, make a trade or two.
Starting Wednesday, baseball's 30 general managers and plenty of their confederates will gather in Indian Wells, Calif., for three days of the above, along with procedural meetings of more substance and consequence than usual.
In between all of that, they will fish around for who might be available or could be traded or would be desired or may head somewhere. This is all a game, remember, and this is where teams advance their pawns with the idea of striking soon thereafter. They've all got their eyes on the king, of course, and this offseason …
1. Josh Hamilton wears the crown. Because no matter how absurd or ill-conceived it may seem, there is a reality about his hunt for one of the longest and most lucrative contracts in sports history: Someone is going to give it to him.
Lest we forget, heading into free agency last season, the popular favorite for Albert Pujols was the St. Louis Cardinals and Prince Fielder had nowhere to go. Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno hated long-term deals and the Detroit Tigers already wore a pair of $20 million-a-year players in Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. And what happened? What always happens: This sport is crazy, beyond-every-whit-of-reality rich, and the very rich people who own teams have a hankering to spend those riches on players, all the way from No. 1 to 175.
Think of it this way. Put 30 people together in a room. At least one of those people is scared of extraterrestrials. At least one of those people thinks the moon landing was faked. At least one of those people believes free agency this offseason is moot because the Mayans are right.
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Well, at least one team will believe that in spite of his ability to stay healthy, in spite of destroying his body for years with drug and alcohol abuse, in spite of the many apparent warning signs, Josh Hamilton is worth six or seven or who-knows-how-many years and $150 million or $175 million or can't-conceive-how-many millions of dollars. If the Angels were willing to give 10 years and $240 million to Pujols when he runs like an old man in pain, and if the Tigers were willing to give nine years and $214 million to Fielder when he tips the scales around 300 pounds, surely Hamilton will bamboozle someone into doing something similar.
The smart money among executives is on the …
2. Los Angeles Dodgers because, well, they're spending like that person who believes the Armageddon is right. And, more than that, they're creating a new economy in the game.
These Dodgers are the best thing that happened to the players since free agency. While Frank McCourt used the franchise as a bank account, the Mark Walter-Magic Johnson-Stan Kasten consortium is treating it like an art collection: You want the best, you spend the most. The Dodgers are making the Yankees look like skinflints, the Red Sox like food-stamp recipients and the baseball world's true poor like nonentities – which, with free agency the greenest economy around, they pretty much are.
Now, the Dodgers make zero sense for Hamilton. They've got $334.5 million tied up in Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. And still, that's the shadow they're casting on the game right now.
"It's got to be them," one executive mused. "Who else?"
There will be a mystery team with Hamilton, just as there will be suitors for …
3. Zack Greinke beyond the Dodgers, Angels and Texas Rangers, the three teams whose financial heft and desire for pitching may end up with a bidding war that lands Grienke the biggest-ever contract for a right-handed pitcher – and one that could approach CC Sabathia's seven-year, $161 million deal as the tops period.
[Related: Ultimate free-agent tracker for 2012-13]
Greinke's agent, Casey Close, is one of the game's most methodical. He coaxed a $125 million extension out of Philadelphia for Ryan Howard when the Phillies had no need to lock him up long-term, and he finagled $51 million from the Yankees for Derek Jeter with zero leverage. Greinke is not going to sign fast. Hell, right now, the …
4. Toronto Blue Jays and Colorado Rockies don't even have managers. The Blue Jays seem to be in no hurry to name their next one, considering they get to choose from everybody not named Walt Weiss and Matt Williams, the two finalists for Colorado's gig.
What do the Rockies have to offer? Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, a great ballpark and six marijuana plants. Williams is a third-base coach and Weiss a high school coach, so even if the Rockies excise the weed from their tidings, the two stars and promise of a big league managerial gig is good enough. If only the Rockies could …
5. Make a trade for some pitching. It's available, via the Tampa Bay Rays, whose abundance of friendly pitching contracts attached to great arms makes their desire to upgrade a stagnant offense far easier. Question is, who to trade? Is it James Shields, a top-notch guy on a friendly contract, or David Price, an ace who could bring a haul, or Jeremy Hellickson, who would fetch a nice everyday player, or maybe someone else?
If anything big comes out of the GM meetings, it will be a deal, and in fact some trades consummated at the Winter Meetings will have backstories dating to a conversation in Indian Wells, when names get floated during talks about, say, the …
6. World Baseball Classic, which is one of the items on the GMs' agenda. This will be the third WBC, and by now executives have gotten used to the idea of starting spring training earlier, ramping up their pitchers ahead of schedule, losing a chunk of their team for a couple weeks and praying like mad no one gets injured.
It's a fun event. No, the baseball isn't the highest quality. Just today Yu Darvish, one of the heroes of Japan's 2009 championship, said he wouldn't participate next spring, focusing instead on his second year with the Rangers. There will be more bow-outs, and the usually what-good-is-this hand-wringing will accompany it.
The problem, frankly, isn't who is or isn't there. It's who can or can't see it. The entire tournament will run on MLB Network, which reaches only 60 percent of households. While television ratings aren't the be-all, end-all, for an event trying to grow beyond a niche, a broader audience is imperative. Maybe it will be the first place baseball tries its …
7. New instant replay rules, which are coming and which the GMs will discuss in great detail.
What will they hear? Well, the testing at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field toward the end of the season using camera and radar systems to track down-the-line calls did a good enough job of capturing accurate data that MLB plans to implement one of the systems in ballparks next season, pending approval from commissioner Bud Selig's committee that renders verdicts on big rule changes.
What will the GMs talk about? Mostly about the options for implementing expanded replay as well as its repercussions. And then they'll vote, their verdict not altogether important but at least indicative of just how open people in front offices are, whereas those on the field remain split. Exactly how …
8. Umpires feel about the matter is no longer of great importance to MLB, which understands that the presence of replay can mitigate some of the poisonous sentiment between players and umps. It is not, as some umpires believe, an emasculative tool to give players more power in a relationship already skewed by class differences. It is a tool to get as close to right as possible, which should be a goal for everyone.
The GMs, as they do every year, will go over umpiring data from the season: the best, the worst, who excels behind the plate, who thrives on the bases, who interprets rules well, the great calls, the blown ones – the gamut. They will nod, grouse and move on to figuring out how major league pitchers are going to agree to …
9. Wearing concussion-stopping Kevlar inserts between their head and hat. It's not a joke, either. It's going to happen in the minor leagues this year, a source indicated, which is MLB protocol whenever it wants to implement something to which the players' union might not immediately agree.
After the scary injury to Brandon McCarthy and Doug Fister taking a line drive off the head during the World Series, the safety of pitchers – and the potential for technology helping save another Ray Chapman incident – moved from a far-off item of discussion to near the front. None of the GMs is expected to argue, and unless the manufacturers make such an uncomfortable product that it affects pitchers' abilities to throw, lined helmets will become the norm within a year.
MLB did this before. As much of a mess as the Great Gazoo helmet was, Rawlings redesigned it, streamlined it and now even …
10. Josh Hamilton wears it. Where he'll do so this season is the question, and if it's not the Dodgers (no room) and not the Brewers (insufficient cash) and not the Yankees (want to stay under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold going forward) and not the Red Sox (they've whiffed on one too many long-term deals), well, who?
All eyes go back to the Rangers, much as they did with Fielder and the Brewers last year when there seemed no perfect match. Maybe it can happen, though Hamilton and Texas have the air of the couple that's not screaming at one another for the kids' – or fans' – sake.
We saw the fissure when Hamilton copped to sadness over the boos that accompanied him as the season ended, and then Rangers owner Nolan Ryan didn't accuse Hamilton of quitting on the team … but then pretty much did.
While for the rest of the baseball world Hamilton's demons scare them, it's something different in Texas, something that's deeper and more visceral and difficult to see remedied. Ultimately, the years and the money will talk, and if Texas about-faces and opts to pay Hamilton, he'll stay.
Until then, he's the king of the baseball world, ready to wear his nine-figure contract. It's coming. Not this week. Probably not this month. But it's coming. It always does.
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