Right out of the gate, the Chicago Cubs signed two players for $211 million, outfielder Alfonso Soriano -- eight years for $136 million -- and a five-year, $75-million deal that allowed them to retain third baseman Aramis Ramirez.
Then the Houston Astros lavished $100 million over six years on outfielder Carlos Lee. There was a great deal of money headed in the direction of Major League Baseball players and neither the New York Yankees nor the Boston Red Sox were leading the way.
The Red Sox were still spending money, announcing on Tuesday night, that they had signed outfielder J.D. Drew to a five-year, $70-million deal, pending a physical. And they had already bid $51.1 million for the rights to Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka. But the spending bar has been set by a Middle American division in an entirely different league.
The NL Central, of course, produced the 2006 World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals. The two seasons before that, it also was the home of the National League pennant-winner, the Cards in 2004 and the Astros in 2005. This is a group to be taken seriously, especially at these prices.
The Cubs are expected to spend still more money on free-agent pitching. The question that arises is: How will all of this spending affect the competition, particularly within the division?
There were some answers on Tuesday at the first day of the managers' sessions with the Winter Meetings media. Tony La Russa, manager of the World Series champions, was immediately asked the impact of the spending on the Central Division and he responded:
"Well, it's improving every year. Yeah, I think both of those guys (Soriano and Lee) we were interested in. The competition got them, so it'll make them better."
The Cardinals have four starters from their 2006 rotation who are free agents. They would like to retain Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver, and they might also have an interest in bringing back Mark Mulder. But the market may be putting these pitchers beyond their financial reach. The Cardinals have operated with a policy of determining what they believe a player is worth and not allowing the fluctuations of the market to take them beyond that level.
"It's not the only reason, but one reason that we have remained competitive is we put the value that we can -- that fits our ballclub -- on a pitcher or a player, and if that doesn't get him, you end up stretching, you end up causing more problems," La Russa said.
"There's a value for Suppan, for Jason (Marquis), for Jeff, for Mark. Hopefully something works out with one or two of those guys. If it doesn't, it doesn't make sense to stretch."
The current inflationary salary spiral makes that kind of judgment increasingly difficult. But La Russa remains confident that the Cardinals can make it work.
"I think we'll end up with real good pitching," La Russa said. "And it'll be within the framework that we can live with and keep competing with."
The Cardinals have done some spending of their own; a five-year, $65-million extension for 2005 Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter. The length of the contract is striking, but the money, in the current market, almost looks like a bargain for a competitor of Carpenter's caliber.
"Yeah, I think it's a fair deal for Chris," La Russa said. "I know there's one agent that was complaining. What's appropriate? I mean, some of the signings, why should that set the market? I think Chris is getting paid well.
"But I think it's really important for our club, and Chris earned it, deserves it."
Astros manager Phil Garner said that Lee, a proven run-producer, was a perfect fit for his team. After Soriano's signing, Garner said that it would take major money to sign Lee. What has surprised Garner is the escalating market for mid-range players.
"It has absolutely shocked me," Garner said. "And I did say over the years, I have generally predicted where the market was gonna go. Sitting around the table and talking, 'I think these guys are going to go higher than most people think' and all that, but the only one I got right so far this year was Soriano. I thought he was going to get a contract like (Carlos) Beltran, I just didn't expect it to be one more year.
"So, we've got that one right, but I've been absolutely stunned at the amount of money that, you know, specialty players are getting, fitting a role. A lot of dollars."
Garner was asked if the signing of Lee would dramatically change the competitive balance in the NL Central.
"Well, I don't know if it swings the balance of power," he replied. "The Cubs have been pretty active and I think Milwaukee continues to improve, just because they got a lot of young players and I think they are going to be a little bit better. Cincinnati improved last year. Pittsburgh's got a lot of younger players, I don't think they can win the division but I think they can be tough. And St. Louis is probably not done.
"So I don't know if the balance of power has shifted any more necessarily in our favor. I think we're going to continue to remain competitive in our division. I think Carlos Lee, his addition has helped us immensely in terms of our offense. I think he will make a lot of other people better. I think he will take some pressure off of some guys and I think you will see him play better. He will obviously produce in the middle of the lineup, you've seen what he can do.
"I like the basics of our ballclub right now. I think it's important that we add another (starting) pitcher and I think that's going to be a critical issue and move for us."
And in that regard, the Astros, rather than entering a bidding war for an established starter from another team, have to hope instead that Andy Pettitte will choose to return. Pettitte had considered retirement, but Garner now believes that Pettitte will pitch again and the only question is for which team.
"My biased feeling is that he wants to be in Houston, he needs to be in Houston and we want him to be in Houston and his family is dying for him to be in Houston," Garner said with a smile. "His kids are pining every day at school, wondering: 'Oh, Daddy, please don't go anywhere else, stay in Houston. 'I could hear it all over the city.'"
Apart from whether Andy Pettitte's children are actually saying that, the question that occurs is how the small-market members of the Central Division can compete with these big spenders. Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin had an interesting perspective on that.
"The players' performances don't necessarily go up at the same rate of increase as their salaries do," Melvin said.
That is the crux of the whole issue. If a guy hits 40 home runs at $10 million a year that does not mean that he will hit 60 homers if you pay him $15 million a year. The money has become much bigger. The players do not necessarily get much better.
The NL Central already figured to be a highly competitive neighborhood again next season. Now, it turns out to be an expensive neighborhood as well.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.