Today, the blue-chip free agents are fewer, so the shopping is less glamorous, not to mention less productive. With baseball's prosperity spread more widely among the 30 Major League franchises, more small and mid-market teams are able to sign their most prized players to long-term contracts, thus keeping them out of the open market.
And if a club cannot afford to retain a particular player it may opt to trade him before his contract expires, thus getting something more established than a Draft choice as compensation.
Either way, any way, the free-agent market is thinner than it was. So if a club has holes to fill, combined with the conviction that it should win now, the trade is back as a primary way to do player personnel business.
OK, the Winter Meetings were not exactly ablaze with headline-generating activity the last four days. But that was largely a result of the fact that so much had been accomplished so quickly in the earlier weeks of the offseason.
There have been 15 trades so far in December, which is an old-timey kind of pace. There have been major trades and minor trades and multi-team trades. A trade, for those of us who love to observe the game of baseball, even when it is not being played, is simply more fun than a free-agent signing.
Who won, who lost? How brilliant is that general manager? Or, on the other hand, what was that guy thinking? Each trade, no matter how large or how small, has a dynamic of its own.
It can be judged now in a speculative way. It can be judged at the end of the next season with some empirical evidence on hand. It can be judged at the end of the decade for its historical value. Or it can live until the end of time, like Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. (All right, it was a six-player deal. But there is no record of the Cubs winning a World Series with Bobby Shantz or Doug Clemens, either.)
Every trade has worth as a topic of debate, but two trades made early in the 2013-14 offseason were particularly striking. The deal in which the Tigers sent Prince Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler was nothing less than fascinating.
Fielder has been one of the premier sluggers in the game, but the Tigers needed to get out from under his contract so that they might be able to re-sign Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer. The Rangers, meanwhile, needed a big bat, a player who would fit in the middle of their lineup and would thrive in their hitter-friendly ballpark.
Fielder is the bigger impact player, but Kinsler is a considerable talent. Just two years ago he was a 30-30 man. He can still be seen scoring from second on an infield groundout. The Tigers are making a modest transition. They still have plenty of power, but they're forming a more diverse offense. Kinsler is part of that. This trade doesn't involve four teams and 10 players, but it is still multi-faceted.
A trade can be part of a larger scenario for a club. This was part of the deal in which the Angels sent outfielder Peter Bourjos and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk to the Cardinals for third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas.
The Angels had a hole at third base. And knowing they were going to trade later for pitching, which they did in the Mark Trumbo deal, they needed to fill the third base position.
It was not easy for the Cardinals to part with Freese, MVP of the 2011 NL Championship Series, and the 2011 World Series, and a hometown St. Louis player. But they needed an infusion of speed and improved outfield defense, and they got both in Bourjos, a splendid defensive player, perhaps the best center fielder in the game.
And the Cardinals believed that they could adjust to Freese's departure by moving Matt Carpenter back to third base and bringing in one of their top prospects, Kolten Wong, to play second.
All of this was not only possible, but necessary, because the Angels didn't believe the free-agent market contained any third basemen good enough to be their regular at that position.
This is precisely the kind of thing that keeps the Hot Stove League alive and well. There is still talent left unsigned in the free-agent market, but with any luck even in the depths of winter there will be more trades, deals, swaps for us to happily chew on.