BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

Next week, the world of Major League Baseball descends on Dallas for the winter meetings, an annual gathering of owners and front office personnel.  The free agent and trade markets have been very slow moving since season’s end, but that is expected to change next week.  With so many decision makers in one place, agents and even players themselves join in the activities campaigning for jobs.

The General Managers’ Meetings were held last month in Milwaukee.  Much of the ground work for trades and free agent signings was laid then.  GMs at least got a feel as to the basic contract parameters that agents were seeking for their free agent clients.  C J. Wilson’s agent for instance let it be known that he is seeking a contract comparable to the six years for $120 million that Cliff Lee received last year.  GMs also got a feeling from their counterparts as to who might be available in a trade and what it might take to land those “who’s”.

One thought is that the big free agent contracts seen in the past may not be there.  With clubs getting burned on contracts given to players such as Alphonso Soriano and Carlos Lee, there is caution in the market place.  There is more speculation that the two big name free agents – Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder – may end up returning to the Cardinals and Brewers simply because other teams will not be willing to pay more than the offers this pair has received already from their teams.  It was always thought the odds were good that Pujols would stay in St. Louis, but Fielder is somewhat of a surprise.  Unfortunately for those two first basemen, at least in terms of cashing in on free agency, the big spenders New York and Boston have a front line first baseman under contract and are not buyers in the first baseman market.

As for the Rangers, there are few smoke signals coming out of Arlington.  This team may do virtually nothing in terms of adding personnel, or it could make a couple of significant moves.  The signing of closer Joe Nathan coupled with the announcement of moving Neftali Feliz to the rotation solidifies the back end of the bullpen and perhaps the rotation too.  Feliz plus returning starting pitchers Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando gives the Rangers a starting five that could start the season.  Scott Feldman is also an option, and at times late last season, he showed signs of returning to the form he showed in 2009 when he won 17 games.  There are also minor league prospects such as Michael Kirkman that could contend.

Such a rotation would be cheap and not very glitzy, but then again the 2011 rotation sans Cliff Lee from the 2010 World Series team didn’t look very glitzy either.  All the original starting five coming out of spring training did was start 157 of 162 games, with each winning at least 13; and the team returned to the World Series.

The Rangers profess to be interested in retaining C. J. Wilson and have been linked in trade talks with the Cubs for Matt Garza and the White Sox for John Danks.  The general thought is the price of poker will be too high for the Rangers on Wilson, who is known to have visited the Angels and Marlins within the past 10 days.  It is widely believed that no one will offer the terms that Wilson’s agent has thrown out, but who knows how close the bidding will get.  There is no shortage of suitors for Wilson though.

In past years, the Rangers have taken a shot at catching lightning in a bottle by adding a free agent pitcher that was once considered good, but has had injury problems.  Neither Brandon Webb last year or Rich Hardin the year before made much of a contribution.  They have also signed veteran starters such as Dave Bush, Seth McClung, Jason Jennings and Kris Benson in recent years.  In the end, none of these helped, and the Rangers’ success ended up being based on home grown talent.  Cliff Lee is the only outsider that has made a difference.  Despite the history, the Rangers undoubtedly will look outside the organization for starting pitching help again this year.

On the field, the only two positions that outside help might be sought is first base and center field.  Texas claims to be committed to Mitch Moreland at first base.  However, rumors persist that the Rangers are suddenly flush enough to increase their payroll to accommodate Pujols or Fielder.  Such a signing would make a splash and certainly improve the team on the field in 2012.  The wisdom however of being tied to the mega contract those two are seeking for the long term is questionable.  The Rangers will be competitive next year – the favorite to win the West if not the American League pennant – with or without Pujols or Fielder.  Six or seven years from now, $20 – $30 million of dead money in the salary budget could sink the team’s chances.

You can look no further than within the division to the Angels to see the problem.  LA’s payroll exceeded $140 million last year, while the Rangers was less than $100 million; yet the Angels haven’t been able to stay within 10 games of Texas in either of the past two seasons with dead money such as big salaries being paid to Gary Matthews, Jr. and Scott Kazmir.

In center field, Craig Gentry improved over the season and could get a shot at the position full time.  The left handed batting Julio Borbon could join Gentry as a platoon tandem similar to the Endy Chavez/Gentry combination for much of last season.  There has been no serious speculation for importing a center fielder so far, which may make it all the more likely to happen.  This team is good at pulling surprises out of nowhere.  On this front, Texas has the flexibility to acquire a corner outfielder and move Josh Hamilton to center field.

In any event, next week should be exciting as trades and free agent signings start to happen.  It is amazing how just one or two notable signings or trades can set off a flurry of activity.  Baseball fans should have a much clearer picture of how the teams stack up in 2012 by the end of the meetings.

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