The games have been put into the books. The awards have been put into the trophy cases. The turkeys have been removed from the ovens. Time to put baseball to bed for the winter? Not a chance. The temperature may be dropping, but the sport's offseason drama is just warming up. They don't call it the Hot Stove League for nothing. The stretch drive to winter's main attraction -- the annual Winter Meetings, beginning a four-day run on Dec. 6 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. -- will be congested. Baseball folks face far tougher decisions than whether to get the natural fir or the flocked plastic for the living room.
First up: Ranked free agents offered salary arbitration last week by their 2010 teams must decide by Tuesday 11:59 p.m. ET whether to accept or decline. That call will have to be made by 30 (13 A's and 17 B's) of the 35 ranked free agents; four others have already signed 2011 deals, and Javier Vazquez is close to finalizing an agreement with the Marlins that had been anticipated for days. Among those facing the decision are outfielders Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford, third baseman Adrian Beltre, left-handed starter Cliff Lee and closer Rafael Soriano. For them, the deadline is a mere technicality, since they will reject with the assurance of finding long-term deals. Others must weigh the certainty of arbitrated salary versus playing the open market. On deck: Teams face a Thursday deadline to offer 2011 contracts to unsigned players under their control; those not tendered contracts jump into the free-agency pool, inflating the ranks of players available on the open market. This tender date could very well also be called clean-slate day. Not tendering a contract renewal to players whom clubs may still be interested in retaining is all about that: Allowing new contracts to be negotiated without the 20-percent salary cut limit imposed by the game's labor rules. In the hole: Those Winter Meetings, which will open next Monday as the centerpiece of the offseason counter, revving up free-agent negotiations and trade talks. But this week leading up to the start of the Winter Meetings could see the most alluring free agent of them all make an early decision. Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, is set to meet this week with representatives of three teams in serious contention for the left-hander amid the perception his courtship might be headed to a quick resolution. Could that possibly happen, at a time most premium free agents extend negotiations deeper into December? Yes, there are always those who dislike dragging these things out and prefer quick calls. Consider Troy Percival, an A-list closer off his 33-save season for the Angels in 2004 who liked what he heard from the first team with which he met and signed with Detroit on Nov. 18 -- within hours of the start of free-agent bidding. Lee could be a similar nonconformist. And speaking of the Tigers, they have again been quick-strike artists. Twice, in fact, snapping up DH/catcher Victor Martinez and premier setup reliever Joaquin Benoit, two of the ranked free agents who have already signed with new teams. Also double-dipping have been the Marlins, about to add Vazquez to their earlier signing of catcher John Buck. The other signee is right-hander Jon Garland (Dodgers, from the Padres). For the most part, though, free-agent decisions will be deferred up to and through the Winter Meetings -- and in many cases, far beyond. As you watch this develop, bear in mind the usual factors at play: Positional bottlenecks in the market (Crawford and Werth in the outfield, for instance), and a musical-chairs sort of waiting game played out on the lower end of the pool by marginal players holding out for better deals. Something else of which to be mindful as the courtship proceeds for the majority of ranked free agents who will decline the offer of arbitration: Teams might be facing a steeper price than usual for signing a Type-A stud at the cost of a 2011 First-Year Player Draft selection; next June's Draft is already "shaping up to be terrific," as noted by Boston GM Theo Epstein. The Yankees typically will continue to be featured in the offseason's most intriguing chapters. In addition to their craving for Lee -- only heightened by Andy Pettitte's apparent indecision about returning for another season -- the Yankees are engaging captain-in-limbo Derek Jeter in fascinating negotiations. What makes those talks so riveting is the consensus view that neither side can do better than with each other -- Jeter monetarily, the Yankees intangibly -- yet are so far apart. After the player's camp lowered a reported opening request of six years and $150 million to five years between $110 million and $120 million, the next step would appear to belong to the Yankees, who had made an initial offer of three years and $45 million.