ORLANDO -- Yes, we get it: The general managers' meetings will be setting the stage for this baseball offseason. But, in reality, it could be much, much more than just a warm-up act.
Brace yourself, because the general managers meetings aren't necessarily the winter meetings' less popular, more uneventful third cousin anymore. As much as Red Sox fans still want to revel in their world championship, the coming days at the J.W. Marriott Grande Lakes might just be a big ol' slap in the face for those hesitant to turn the page.
Some reminders …
Last year, the Red Sox locked up their first free agent (David Ross) at this thing.
And the last time the GM meetings found themselves in the shadow of Mickey Mouse and Co. -- three years ago -- you had two three-year contracts signed by set-up relievers (Joaquin Benoit, Scott Downs), with one of the market's top catching targets coming off the board as well (John Buck).
And for the sake of Red Sox fans, those '10 meetings marked the moment that team chairman Tom Werner declared that the Sox would be making big moves, stiff-arming the notion that his club was heading into a bridge year.
"We are going to sign a significant free agent," Werner told WEEI on Nov. 17, 2010. "We are going to make a trade."
He was right: Less than month later Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford were in the fold.
Back in '10 there were also the whispers about the Red Sox going after Arizona's Justin Upton (with the asking price hovering around Felix Doubront, Jacoby Ellsbury and perhaps Daniel Bard), the quandary that came with figuring out who was going to catch if Victor Martinez left town, the buzz that came with Oakland's five-year offer to Adrian Beltre, and the realization that three-year deals for relievers might be a necessity.
The GM meetings are always a good point of departure at which to look back after the team-building has been completed in order to unearth how exactly the three-day extravaganza served as a springboard. In '09, the Red Sox amped up their wooing of then-free agent John Lackey while in Chicago, leading to the pitcher's current deal.
So, what should we look forward to this time around?
MORE MONEY MIGHT MEAN MORE ACTION
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the distribution of television money is more than doubling. What does that mean? A bunch.
You might actually start seeing some of the lowest payrolls in the game starting to get into the action. A team like the Astros -- who figure to see their payroll go from around $13 million to upwards of $50 million -- might actually have $40 million or so to spend. As currently constituted, that's potentially more than the Red Sox.
(See Alex Speier's projected payroll for the Sox, which estimates the Sox having approximately $32 million to spend this offseason in order to remain safely below the luxury tax threshold of $189 million.)
And for those wondering how the big market teams would survive with that $189 million roadblock standing in the way, it doesn't appear to be too much of a concern for those dealing with that rarefied air.
The Yankees, for instance, are sitting about $80 million shy of the mark right now, without portraying the kind of fear of going over they had previously exhibited.
"It's a goal that we have if it's possible," general manager Brian Cashman told The Associated Press last month. "There's a lot of benefits to staying under that, but it's not a mandate if it's at the expense of a championship run. It just depends on what the opportunities are before us, and the costs associated with it."
(And, don't forget, whatever bid the Yanks put on Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka isn't slated to count toward the luxury tax threshold. That's a lesson you should have remembered from the Daisuke Matsuzaka $51,111,111 million bid back in '06.)
So with teams scurrying about with checkbooks in hand, there seems to be perhaps a more aggressive approach taken already in the offseason. What that could lead to is more action at the GM meetings. The splashes won't necessarily involve the big-ticket items (Jacoby Ellsbury, Robinson Cano, Brian McCann), but plenty of other useful parts could be in play.
You still have to spend money to win championships. As one executive recently pointed out, there has been one team over the last 10 years to win a championship with a payroll of under $100 million -- the '03 Marlins.
RED SOX WILL BE LOOKING FOR THE NEXT KOJI UEHARA
You want reliable relievers, you better act fast.
Sure, the Red Sox secured the services of Koji Uehara in early December. But that was only because of his age and questions regarding durability. On teams' wish lists, he was not considered a priority when it came to building a bullpen.
Now, with the Red Sox laying the groundwork to either sign or replace their big four of free agents -- Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Napoli -- another mission is underway: to find a semi-reliable late-inning arm.
The Sox have their closer in Uehara, and there are obviously good enough arms to help bridge the gap toward the ninth inning already on the roster (particularly if Brandon Workman picks up where he left off as a reliever). But with Andrew Bailey not scheduled to jump into the fray in the season's first few months, they could really use another veteran, late-inning arm.
The problem is that most of the closers who are available -- Joe Nathan, Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour, Benoit -- are going to want to remain closers.
Balfour and Benoit are both represented by ACES (Sam and Seth Levinson), who are known for locking up free agent relievers fairly early in the offseason (see Jonathan Papelbon).
"Historically, championship teams have always been able to lock down the late innings of a game," Seth Levinson wrote in an email. "The value of a deep and versatile pen was never more evident than this postseason. In fact, with parity and the additional wild card teams, the difference between the playoffs and the golf course is all but a handful of games.
"The financial health of the industry, the undeniable need for a quality 'pen and the dominant free agent relievers available on the market provide an opportunity for teams to either transform into contenders or realistically expect to be playing in late October."
Hitting the postseason with a viable bullpen is of the utmost importance, as the Red Sox displayed in '13. (The postseason's relievers carried a combined ERA a full run lower than the regular season average.) But there have to be options when Plan A falls apart. That was where Uehara came in.
So, if the aforementioned closers are too expensive, where might the Sox find under-the-radar options? Think Edward Mujica or Jesse Crain. Both have late-inning stuff (as was evidenced by their All-Star Game appearances), while having seen their valued diminished due to second-half injuries.
Something to keep an eye on.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER QUALIFYING OFFERS ARE TURNED DOWN?
First, let's talk about Stephen Drew. He almost certainly won't take the qualifying offer of one-year, $14.1 million, and seemingly is being wooed by multiple teams. That easy progression suggests Xander Bogaerts slides into shortstop while Drew heads elsewhere.
But there is the scenario some in baseball have bought into that would put Drew back in a Red Sox uniform for two more years, leaving Bogaerts at third base while putting Will Middlebrooks on the market (or first base).
That leads us to Mike Napoli, who will also push aside the qualifying offer, banking on using his increased value (continued health and new lease on life defensively) to grab the multi-year deal he thought he had last December.
The free agent options are Kendrys Morales (who would cost a draft pick) and Justin Morneau (who wouldn't). The 30-year-old Morales had a remarkably similar season in '13 to what he put up in '12. Last season with the Mariners, the switch-hitter finished with a .785 OPS and 23 home runs after totaling a .787 OPS and 22 homers with the Angels the year before.
Morneau simply hasn't returned to his offensive dominance of prior seasons, having not eclipsed a .773 OPS since '10. After being traded to the Pirates last season, he totaled just three RBI in 25 games. The thinking is that Mike Carp (or Daniel Nava) would certainly be able to produce superior production.
If Napoli does walk, the solution might be something along the lines of what Plan C was last offseason (after Napoli and Nick Swisher) -- a trade.
Then there is Ellsbury.
The interest in Carlos Beltran is intriguing considering it would represent a proactive strike. The landing spot for Ellsbury won't figure to unearth itself until next month, but maybe the Red Sox don't want to wait around. Beltran figures to be a bit of a squeeze roster-wise (with Jackie Bradley Jr., Jonny Gomes and Nava still in the mix). But the switch-hitter represents the type of offensive influence an Ellsbury departure would necessitate.
The guess here is that Ellsbury's market will be driven by Seattle. If the Mariners want to go to the ends of the earth, then the rest of the baseball world might be willing to step back and let the outfielder head west. If not, even the Red Sox might remain in the conversation.
WHO WILL BE CATCHING WITH DAVID ROSS?
It's hard to see the Red Sox jumping into the catching market like they did last offseason, when Ross solidified the backstop tandem.
The reason is the potential for the Brian McCann market to fall into the Sox' laps. If McCann's asking price for years drops under five (and perhaps four) years, the Red Sox could be in play for the catcher. That doesn't seem likely right now.
Saltalamacchia still might remain the perfect option for what the Red Sox are looking for in terms of commitment and production. But the problem is that without a draft pick attached to him, the price might get too uncomfortable for the Sox.
Carlos Ruiz would be a solid complement to Ross, likely asking for a short-term deal. But he is a right-handed hitter. A.J. Pierzynski hits from the left side and has drawn some interest from the Red Sox, but his receiving skills and demeanor (as well as diminished production) might offer some pause.
Dioner Navarro, a switch-hitter who had a solid offensive season as the Cubs backup last season, is another intriguing possibility. And then there is the internal option of Ryan Lavarnway, who is banking on his days in the minors being behind him.
This is the one position where the falling of dominoes might dictate the Red Sox' strategy.
Let the games begin ...