MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Small moves are sometimes the best at Meetings

Small moves are sometimes the best at Meetings

Small moves are sometimes the best at Meetings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- David Price's name is sure to come up, and so will Brett Gardner's. Matt Kemp could be a topic of conversation as well, and also Mark Trumbo, Brandon Phillips, Jonathan Papelbon and Billy Butler.

In the end, there might not be a single one of them traded after baseball's decision-makers gather Sunday night for the start of the Winter Meetings. But it's noteworthy that so many teams are at least willing to discuss dealing some of their biggest names.

One reason could be that teams are more aggressive than ever to make deals because they know the difference in talent among baseball's top 10-15 teams isn't dramatic.

Payroll no longer decides pennant races. Smarts count, too, more than ever before. That's why the Cardinals, A's and Rays routinely finish in front of bigger-spending teams.

Other owners and general managers look at those clubs and try to understand the success. If they're really studying, they'll see that postseason berths aren't always grabbed by the teams that make the splashiest offseason moves.

The Giants grabbed Aubrey Huff off out of the bargain bin in January 2010. Seven months later, they got Cody Ross in a waiver deal with the Marlins.

When all was said and done that year, there were not two more significant moves. Yes, the Giants also won because they'd acquired more pitching than any other club, but you see the point.

And then two years ago, Giants general manager Brian Sabean went out and got Angel Pagan in the offseason and Marco Scutaro for the stretch run. Those moves created no more than a small ripple. Yet they were critical in San Francisco winning another World Series championship.

The Giants still had great pitching. If they hadn't, Sabean's smart moves wouldn't have made all that much difference.

The Red Sox signed seven free agents last offseason. Not one of them would be considered a star. But they ended up playing huge roles as Boston won its third World Series title in the past 10 seasons.

So, with more parity than ever, teams believe they've got a chance to win. The Royals believe they'll be in the mix. The Pirates expect to be right back in the postseason. The Reds, Dodgers and others are close.

There just aren't many five-year rebuilding plans anymore. There's no reason for them. There's also no reason to be cautious in personnel decisions.

That's why Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler and Doug Fister were traded, why Robinson Cano got a breathtaking contract from the Mariners and why Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Vargas and Curtis Granderson have changed teams.

We hype the Winter Meetings almost every year, throwing out all the big trades that might be made, and then we inevitably are disappointed. We may be disappointed again this time, but it won't be because teams are running scared.

That's probably why we've already had a flurry of deals. Most elite players are locked up by their teams before reaching free agency. So when one does actually go on the open market, there could be a feeding frenzy.

Analysts focusing on the size of the contracts are missing the point. More than ever, teams are looking at the potential of an immediate return. If Cano helps Seattle win in 2014, there's a good chance there'll be a bigger flow of revenues from tickets, merchandise, sponsorships, etc.

For the Mariners, the hard work begins now. It's one thing to outbid everyone to grab a superstar off the open market. It's another kind of challenge to identify other available veteran players and to piece together a contender.

For instance, the Rangers took on a huge amount of money in trading Kinsler for Fielder. But then Texas general manager Jon Daniels began working around the edges. He acquired rookie left fielder Michael Choice from the A's and signed free-agent catcher J.P. Arencibia. Daniels still needs one more bat, but instead of going for the best available free agent (Shin-Soo Choo ), he could make a run at the next level of free agents, say, Michael Morse or Eric Chavez.

As Daniels said recently, those big-name players are great grabs, but next season, we're going to find out that some of the best moves were the smaller signings that didn't seem significant at the time.

And that's why we love the Hot Stove. It's fascinating to watch the various general managers approach roster construction and free agency. It's especially interesting to look back a year later and see what worked.

In short, every team has an opportunity. Best of all, almost every team recognizes it has an opportunity. And that's probably why this off-season has already given us such a wild ride.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.