COMBINE INFLATIONARY pricing with a weak free-agent market—then throw in a private conference room with an open bar—and what do you get? Maybe one of the more interesting, trade-driven baseball off-seasons in years. Conducted under a new format designed for more efficient trade dialogue, the baseball general managers meetings last week in Orlando set the tone for what could be an old-fashioned hot stove season.
The Astros made the first big trade, sending closer Brad Lidge and infielder Eric Bruntlett to the Phillies for outfielder Michael Bourn, reliever Geoff Geary and third base prospect Mike Costanzo—the first of what Cleveland G.M. Mark Shapiro said could be many "major leaguer for major leaguer" deals.
The free-agent market offers few gems, especially starting pitchers. With Greg Maddux (Padres) and Curt Schilling ( Red Sox) re-signing last week, the best of the remaining starters are Carlos Silva (55--46, 4.31) and Kyle Lohse (63--74, 4.82), two generic, average starters who one agent speculated will command $8 million to $10 million a year. For position players the market is rich in centerfielders ( Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand, Mike Cameron) and has one prospective $300 million prize ( Alex Rodriguez) but few bargains.
So what's a G.M. to do? Boston's Theo Epstein and Florida's Larry Beinfest, cochairs of the G.M. meetings this year, tweaked the format to create more dialogue. Each G.M. stood up at the start of the meetings and announced to the others his winter shopping list, specifying what he was looking for and what he was willing to part with. (Players' association chief Donald Fehr didn't like the idea, suggesting it was a form of collusion.) During the day G.M.'s could use an area with tables and chairs adjacent to the main conference room to conduct sidebar discussions. That area was off-limits to the media. At night the G.M.'s set up a private room with an open bar to encourage more conversation—again making it a press-free zone. "The response from the G.M.'s to it has been great," said Epstein, who added that the G.M.'s would likely stage a similar open-bar setup at the general baseball meetings on Dec. 3--7 in Nashville.
The Marlins have spiced up the trade market by listening to offers for third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. Though the Twins are making a run at signing ace Johan Santana to an extension, most G.M.'s believe that effort is in vain and that Santana will be moved this winter. And more pitchers will become available by trade, one G.M. predicted, because "so many teams are looking for pitching, and they can't find it on the free-agent market, so teams are looking at their frontline pitching and asking, 'What can we get for it?' I do believe it's going to be a busy winter for trades."