NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There was no starting gun or bell that sounded amidst the giant poinsettia trees and winding walkways in the atrium of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. And even if there was, the sheer size of the place would have ensured only a small percentage of the building's many inhabitants would have heard it. But the Winter Meetings did get under way Monday morning in Music City. All you had to do was check your Twitter feed for news of Mike Napoli's reported three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox or Alex Rodriguez's need for hip surgery or the latest in the Justin Upton rumor mill to know that the usual rumblings and rumors were emanating from the lobby.
The only difficulty in this sprawling building is, you know, finding the lobby. Napoli was the latest in a series of free-agent dominoes to have fallen in recent days. He and B.J. Upton were two of the most accomplished position players available in an open market that is not particularly deep, once you get beyond Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton. And so goes the theory that this winter -- and these Winter Meetings, in particular -- could be prone to increased creativity by the general managers. What can make the Winter Meetings such a productive environment is the simple logistical arrangement of having every general manager, every manager, every front-office decision-maker, every trusted scout and evaluator, every prominent agent under one roof. At Opryland, "under one roof" takes on a different connotation, because the roof covers nearly 3,000 rooms and 600,000 square feet of meeting and convention space. The place has its own river, for crying out loud. The logistics, then, aren't exactly what you'd consider streamlined. But we still have plenty of reason to believe this could be an active week. Teams made qualifying offers to their free agents near the end of the General Managers Meetings in November, and the non-tender situations were taken care of last week. So every team has a pretty decent grasp of its wants, its needs, its roster alignment and payroll capability, as well as the wants and needs of the others in the league. "Everything's right in front of you," said a National League executive. "You've targeted potential trade teams, and you've probably had enough dialogue to know where the market's going to be at." Already, we know that the market for free agents is an exorbitant one, even by free agency standards. The influx of new national television money was predicted to have an impact on prices this winter, and that certainly seems to have come to fruition. A few examples: Three relievers -- Brandon League, Jonathon Broxton and Jeremy Affeldt -- have already signed three-year contracts, with League and Broxton passing the $20 million threshold. A 37-year-old outfielder (Torii Hunter) and 37-year-old designated hitter (David Ortiz) each got $26 million over two years. A 28-year-old outfielder whose on-base percentage has dropped nearly 100 points over the past five years (Upton) got $75.25 million over five. A right-hander with a career 55-75 record and 4.28 ERA (Jeremy Guthrie) got $25 million over three. And a catcher who hit .211 last year (Russell Martin) got $17 million over two. The Red Sox reportedly increased the money in Napoli's deal in order to avoid having to go to four years. This is not to knock any of those players. Good for them for making the market work to their advantage. But it just goes to show how costly the free-agent market can be when the pickings are slim. That's why the feeling around the industry is that we could see some increased creativity in the coming days. And here, too, we've already had a fair amount of movement for this particular point in the calendar. Whether it's the Royals trying to amp up their rotation with Ervin Santana and the Angels doing likewise with Tommy Hanson, the D-backs taking a chance on Heath Bell, the A's and Nats improving their outfields with Chris Young and Denard Span, respectively, or the Blue Jays completely reinventing themselves with the Marlins blockbuster, it's been no-holds-barred on the bartering front. Well, the dealing's not done, of course. The free-agent starting pitching and shortstop markets, especially, are so depleted that teams are going to get itchy trigger fingers on the trade front. The question is whether they'll be willing to part with the inventory -- in terms of top prospects or Major League-ready talent -- that it'll take to push those talks over the goal line. "A lot of the conversations begin in earnest in the GM Meetings," said an American League executive. "And with all the time leading up to [the Winter Meetings], a lot gets completed." No team is being more closely watched on the trade front than the Rays, who have an excess of starting pitching (if "excess" even exists in that department) and a need for offense. Rumblings that they might move AL Cy Young winner David Price, who is under contractual control through 2015, appear to be overly ambitious, but don't rule out the possibility of James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson being dealt. The Royals are a team particularly desperate for impact starters, and they have the depth of young position-player talent to pull something off. There is a growing sense that the Indians are intent on moving All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, though their asking price -- young starting pitching -- is high. The D-backs have talked about moving Upton for years, but clearly they haven't been bowled over, to date, and it will likely take a premier shortstop talent to get them to budge. As far as free agents are concerned, the list of non-tenders has stirred some intrigue. Starters Jair Jurrjens and John Lannan are viewed as potential low-risk, high-reward commodities, Mark Reynolds will attract interest in a market always starved for power and closer Brian Wilson is a bounceback candidate. We'll see if we get any clarity on the complicated market for Hamilton and the blossoming market for Greinke, who has visited with the Dodgers, Angels and Rangers in recent days. We'll see what the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Orioles do to respond to the Blue Jays upping the ante in the AL East, and, for that matter, we'll see if the Blue Jays have any other surprises up their sleeves. We'll see what the Dodgers, the newly christened Yankees of the West, do with all that local television revenue that's going to start rolling in by the billions. We'll hopefully get a better sense of the degree to which the Rangers revamp, the Phillies regroup, the Angels reload, the Indians rebuild, etc., etc., etc. We'll see if any surprise big buyers -- a la the Marlins a year ago -- emerge in what can quickly become a competitive environment. We'll see all this and more. And hopefully we'll be able to find our hotel rooms.