The first of several times Major League Baseball held its winter meetings at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas came in December 1980. Whitey Herzog was attending this conclave as Cardinals general manager/manager.
Bustling through the doors to the lobby on the Sunday evening before the start of the meetings, Herzog spied a St. Louis reporter who just had arrived and blurted, "Where the hell ya been? I've got trades to make."
And, before the dawn, Herzog and San Diego counterpart Jack McKeon had completed an 11-player swap. Before the week was over, Herzog had enacted deals that caused 23 players to change uniforms.
That was how the winter meetings worked in those days. All the talk was about trades, especially with the interleague trading deadline built into the last day of the meetings. There were very few free agent signings.
Now, there are almost no trades at the winter meetings. There is no interleague trading deadline and all the talk is about free agents.
When the meetings return this week to the Anatole, now a Hilton property, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes will be the names most often talked about.
In the cases of slugging first basemen Pujols and Fielder, the market has been slow to develop. The teams which often drive the free-agent train, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, have accomplished first basemen in Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez, respectively, to whom they already are committing a lot of money.
With the Los Angeles Dodgers up for sale and the New York Mets trying to find better financial traction, there are two more large-market teams basically out of play for both Pujols and Fielder.
The Miami Marlins made a pitch for Pujols and the Washington Nationals, seeking lefthanded punch, are reported ready to bid for Fielder, who at 27, is four years younger than Pujols.
Then there are the Chicago Cubs, who are reportedly interested in both. Fielder would seem a better fit because new Cubs manager Dale Sveum most recently was the hitting coach for Fielder's Milwaukee team and even managed the Brewers on an interim basis at the end of the 2008 season.
Clearly, the third top free-agent talent is National League batting champion Reyes, formerly the New York Mets' shortstop. Reyes, believed to be seeking $100 million for six years, was wined and dined by the Marlins and reportedly was offered between $75 million and $90 million for that six-year time frame. To date, though, there have been no other offers for Reyes.
Fielder, who hasn't really been sought after by his own team, hasn't received anything concrete either. The Seattle Mariners would seem to have at least minimal interest because general manager Jack Zduriencik was the Brewers' scouting director in 2002 when Milwaukee made Fielder a top pick.
With the Yankees and Red Sox more likely to explore free-agent pitchers like C.J. Wilson, St. Charles native Mark Buehrle and Cardinals righthander Edwin Jackson, the three hitters at the top of the free-agent class may not reap precisely the bonanza they thought they would get from the free-agent process.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told the New York Post he wasn't surprised that the free-agent market was slow.
"I just think it may have something to do with the top free agents not having moved — Pujols and Fielder and Jose Reyes — but it just may be the dynamic between clubs and free agents," Alderson said. "Free agents would like to think a certain market exists, and the clubs at this point are holding out some hope that market doesn't exist. But it all can change in three days in Dallas."
Buerhle, who compiled a 161-119 mark in more than a decade with the Chicago White Sox, may be as well tracked as any free agent, with the Marlins already having made their entreaties and the Red Sox and Detroit, among others, expected to pitch for the Francis Howell North product who will be 33 in March.
Among other top free agents available is longtime Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who is likely to receive attention from the Los Angeles Angels and Brewers.
With Milwaukee almost sure to lose Fielder and third baseman Casey McGehee having flamed out this season, Milwaukee may be replacing both corners of the infield besides shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, whose option was not picked up.
The Cardinals' acknowledged needs, other than re-signing Pujols, have been documented as middle infield help, specifically at shortstop; a righthanded alternative to Jon Jay in center field, and lefthanded relief.
If the Cardinals do not re-sign shortstop Rafael Furcal, the Brewers may jump in. The reigning National League Central Division champions certainly saw enough from Furcal in the last two months of the 2011 regular season and postseason. Furcal hit five homers in 12 regular-season games against the Brewers after the Cardinals got him from the Dodgers in late July and tacked on another homer in Game 6 of the NLCS.
As for the rest of the division . . .
• The Houston Astros, still without a general manager, aren't likely to do much. They have some trade chips but they have some high cholesterol content. Lefthander Wandy Rodriguez is due $23 million for the next two seasons, first baseman/outfielder Carlos Lee $18 million for 2012 and righthander Brett Myers $11 million with a $3 million buyout.
• The Pittsburgh Pirates, hoping to continue much of their rebuilding from within, signed shortstop Clint Barmes, a favorite of manager Clint Hurdle when both were with Colorado, to a two-year, $10.5 million contract but aren't apt to sign too many more players at that price.
• The Cincinnati Reds, whose staff was dreadful, will be in on most of the starting pitchers available but probably can't win a bidding war for either Buehrle or Wilson.
• And then there are the Cubs, whose new braintrust of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over only last month. They might go in almost any direction, even the trade route.
In righthander Matt Garza the Cubs have a pitcher that many teams would want but whom the Cubs don't want to give up. In high-priced left fielder Alfonso Soriano ($54 million remaining for three years) and righthander Carlos Zambrano ($18 million for one), the Cubs have players they no doubt wouldn't mind giving up. But nobody wants them — at least not at those prices.