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Earlier deadlines should make for wild Meetings

Earlier deadlines should make for wild Meetings

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Undoubtedly, baseball's Winter Meetings, which get underway Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., are often billed as a time for the Hot Stove to go from simmer to boil. But there are reasons to believe that proclamation to be especially true this year.

Owners and players agreed to a sped-up schedule for winter movements. Teams were given five days after the World Series to negotiate with their own free agents, rather than the 15 that had become standard. The arbitration offer deadline was moved up from Dec. 1 to Nov. 23, and the arbitration acceptance deadline was moved from Dec. 7 to Nov. 30. The non-tender deadline was moved up from Dec. 12 to Dec. 2.

So by the time general managers and agents report to the Swan and Dolphin Hotel next week, they'll have a form of clarity that wasn't available in past installments of these Meetings.

"The Winter Meetings will be a very productive time for everyone," one agent said. "This year, a little more than years past. The last couple have been kind of quiet. This year should be pretty solid, because everybody who's a free agent is going to be out there. Everybody who is going to be free will be free at the Winter Meetings. In the past, we had to wait for non-tenders or wait for guys to accept arbitration. But by the time everybody shows up Dec. 6 in Orlando, everybody who's on the market will be free and on the market."

And the market, of course, is based on the tried-and-true principles of supply and demand. The biggest names at each position get the biggest deals, and everybody else generally gets in line behind them.

Perhaps as a byproduct of the amped-up deadlines, we have seen some line-jumpers. Mainly, it's been a matter of the likes of Jorge De La Rosa, Hiroki Kuroda, Jake Westbrook, Jhonny Peralta, Aubrey Huff, Jose Contreras and Ramon Hernandez sticking with the ties that bind and re-signing with their 2010 clubs. But we've also seen guys like Joaquin Benoit, Juan Uribe, Javier Vazquez, Jon Garland, John Buck and Geoff Blum carve their own paths.

"There might have been a little bit more activity [than usual in November]," one American League GM said, "but I don't know if that's a function of the schedule or just a matter of interests aligning."

Once interests align between the big dominoes and their signing clubs, then we should have the usual, ensuing flurry of activity. Victor Martinez was the first big name to come off the market, but there are still several others still biding their time. So as a refresher, these are the names to watch in the coming week:

CLIFF LEE: Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, recently told ESPN.com that a "half-dozen" teams are squarely in the mix for the left-hander's services. The industry and media speculation, though, has it down to a two-team race between the Yankees and Rangers.

The Yankees tend to get their man when it comes to bidding wars. But the Rangers, coming off their first World Series appearance and bearing new ownership in Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan, have the motivation and the financial resources to give Lee a lot to think about.

Lee will not only affect the market for fellow free agents like Carl Pavano, but the team or teams that lose out on him might be more motivated to try to persuade the Royals to deal Zack Greinke.

CARL CRAWFORD: He has nothing in common with Lee, from a skills and position standpoint, yet Lee's choice could go a long way toward dictating Crawford's.

Whoever loses out on the Lee bidding war between the Rangers and Yankees could be motivated to land Crawford as an offensive improvement. And that could up the ante for the Angels and Red Sox, who have already expressed great interest in the speedy, game-changing Crawford.

The Angels, coming off a sub-.500 season and in need of speed, probably have the most motivation to land Crawford. They'll just have to offer the bucks to back it up.

ADRIAN BELTRE: Beltre certainly knows how to capitalize in the so-called "walk year." He did it in 2004, when he posted career-bests in OPS (1.017), homers (48) and RBIs (121) for the Dodgers before signing a five-year, $64 million contract with the Mariners. And he did it again in 2010, posting second-bests in those same three categories (.919, 28 and 102) for the Red Sox.

So, who's going to reward Beltre for his remarkably good timing this time around?

Well, the A's reportedly made an aggressive pitch that matches Beltre's Mariners contract, but, if that offer was indeed extended, it has obviously not been accepted. Though highly interested in retaining Beltre, the Red Sox aren't expected to go beyond four years for him, and that might ultimately lead to him pulling a Martinez and signing elsewhere.

The Orioles and Giants are both rumored to be interested in Beltre, who is easily the premier third baseman on the market. The Angels might have the money to sign both Beltre and Crawford, so don't rule them out, either.

One thing is for certain: Whoever ponies up the dollars and years required to land Beltre will be hoping for better returns than the Mariners received.

JAYSON WERTH: Werth recently told CSNPhilly.com that he's holding off on making a decision because it's "very early." Smart man. His market will directly be affected by that of Crawford, as teams that lose out on Crawford might be desperate to land him.

By most accounts, Werth is not expected to remain in Philadelphia. At least, not at this juncture. If his market is not what he expects it to be, the Phillies might be major players for his services.

Meanwhile, the Tigers -- whose owner, Mike Illitch, has worked out his share of megadeals with Werth's agent, Scott Boras -- have been aggressive bidders in this free-agent market and might aggressively pursue Werth, too. And don't rule out the Red Sox, either.

ADAM DUNN: His big bat is one of the more appealing commodities on the open market, but he'll likely have to give up the glove if he's going to truly cash in.

The White Sox, Orioles, Rangers, Jays and A's are among the teams who might be interested in Dunn for DH duties. His days in the NL might be over.

Once all the big dominoes fall, the rest will follow. And the Winter Meetings figure to be prime time for the falling to begin in earnest.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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