The cycle of lavish spending was set in motion before the meetings, with the Chicago Cubs signing Alfonso Soriano for $136 million for eight years and Aramis Ramirez for $75 million for five years, along with the Houston Astros signing Carlos Lee to a six-year deal for $100 million. There was also the Boston Red Sox's bid of $51.1 million for the rights to Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, a move that was in a slightly different category of transaction but still in the realm of record-setting expenditure.
The trend continued at the meetings. For instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Jason Schmidt $47 million over three years. The San Diego Padres gave Greg Maddux a deal that could be worth up to $20 million over two years.
The Cubs gave Ted Lilly $40 million over four years, which seemed to be especially good money for a .500 pitcher. But the Cubs had to outbid the New York Yankees in this deal, and that is always an expensive proposition.
The Red Sox were the American League spending leaders, laying out $70 million over five years for J.D. Drew, whose name in news accounts is frequently preceded by the term "oft-injured." The Red Sox also signed Julio Lugo to a four-year, $36 million deal.
By the time the Giants signed Bengie Molina to a three-year, $16 million deal, and the Dodgers landed Luis Gonzalez with a one-year, $7 million contract, these last two transactions, while they would represent enormous amounts of money to average citizens, seemed like discount deals for Baseball 2006-07.
There are plenty of free agents still at large, so there is plenty of money yet to be spent. The biggest pitching prize of this offseason, lefty Barry Zito, is unsigned. Based on the enormous amounts being spent on pitchers of lesser stature, Zito could be in line for a nine-figure deal.
What did it all mean, the relative lack of activity at the meetings, combined with the fact that the transactions that did occur were mega-expensive? With nearly all the clubs seeking pitching, the market price for pitching could only increase. With that increase, some clubs that might have pondered trading pitchers instead determined that hanging onto the pitching they had was a much more reasonable alternative than shopping for hurlers in a wildly inflated market.
The vast amounts of money being spent indicated an obvious level of prosperity in the game, which can only be a good thing. But there was a downside. Small-market franchises have made relative economic gains, due in part to the growth of revenue sharing. But those gains were in danger of being offset by a market that had inflated beyond their price range.
One small-market team was the exception to the rule, and it created an expensive exception. The Kansas City Royals signed free-agent starting pitcher Gil Meche to a five-year deal, reported to be worth $55 million.
For the most part, though, small-market clubs determined they could not compete in the free-agent signings. The upward spiral of contracts could affect them later in their attempts to re-sign their own valued players when they become arbitration-eligible. These clubs were on the outside looking in at these meetings. They couldn't acquire players. All they could acquire was perspective.
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, when asked what he thought of the size of the contracts being signed, coughed in response. "Can you print that one?" Gardenhire said with a smile. "'Cough, cough.' That's my reaction.
"They are flinging [money] out there, and that's baseball. We try not to pay much attention to it, other than reading it and just going, 'Oh, my.'
"But you've got to remember, we've got a couple of young guys that are arbitration-eligible that we are trying to sign. So when you see the cha-ching going out there, [Twins general manager] Terry Ryan is flinching pretty hard."
There was plenty of flinching going on among the small-market teams at Disney World this week. Their other option was reasoning that developing players rather than buying players was still a more satisfying way to operate.
"The money's gotten crazy," said Ned Yost, manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. "But if you got it, spend it, I guess. You know, we've got to do things a little different, but that's why I love this job; it's a challenge doing it different and doing it right.
"There's something to be said to take a club like ours and build it back right and have success. To me, that's much more gratifying than, you know, spending $300 million and just sitting back and letting them play. You're building something, you're developing something. That's the attraction and the beauty of the job, and that's where I have my fun: watching these kids grow and watching these kids learn and watching them have success -- watching them become, through you, successful."
That is good stuff, the stuff of a rich baseball tradition, based on astute scouting and diligent player development. But at these Winter Meetings, the theme was not the rich tradition, but the (exceedingly) rich contract.
There was nothing like a flurry of transactions at these meetings. There were a few players getting truckloads of money. The 2006 Winter Meetings closed, but the spending promises to continue.