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MLB Winter Meetings Storylines: The Top Five

A look at the storylines that could define the 2010 MLB winter meetings.

I'm not sure how much pull the MLB winter meetings, which began Monday, still have in the baseball world—at this point they're a symbol as much as they are an actual means for wheeling and dealing. They're an excuse for every team's fans to refresh their news feed and feel like the next big move is in the offing—they are to every front office as February is to every player, newly in the Best Shape of His Life. 

With that in mind, here are five stories, both regional and national, that will have us refreshing and/or reloading, depending on our web browser of choice, over the next several days, while John Mozeliak works on his tan in Orlando.

1. Jayson Werth gets overpaid by the Nationals

I've never seen a contract provoke such a hostile reaction from the baseball establishment itself—already Ken Rosenthal has called it insane, Sandy Alderson has made a joke about the national debt, and one unnamed GM has called it something that has to be rendered in newsprint as "bat-- crazy." The strange thing is that the Jayson Werth contract isn't even the worst deal in recent memory. 

Werth's problem is that the deal is right in the sweet spot where he'll find no defenders from the baseball mainstream or the sabermetric fanbase in a way that I've never seen before. Most bad contracts are for players who an old-school sportswriter will defend at any price—Derek Jeter or Ryan Howard, most recently. And big contracts that the mainstream laughs off often have their roots in sabermetric analysis. 

But Werth isn't a $126 million player, not even on Fangraphs, and the mainstream sees him as a "complimentary" player, presumably because the quotes he gives are less interesting than Ryan Howard's. The only people left to defend him are his agent, Scott Boras, and his employers. And being defended by Scott Boras can only make things worse.

2. Albert Pujols needs to get paid by the Cardinals

The big news in St. Louis is that the Cardinals have begun to begin to talk to Albert Pujols's agents, in a contract process so opaque that "they're about to start talking about talking to him" is taken as a welcome bit of news. Sub-Pujols first basemen have only gotten more expensive over the years—Mark Teixeira, Howard, and most recently Adrian Gonzalez have all signed (or considered signing) massive deals.

But Albert Pujols isn't being compared to other first basemen, and he never was. Pujols is being compared to the best players in baseball, both today and ever. The question isn't what Howard got, it's what Alex Rodriguez got, and how the two sides can make a reasonable adjustment based on Rodriguez's extreme youth when he signed his own megadeal. Ichiro and Joe Mauer, fellow once-in-a-lifetime talents and faces-of-the-franchise, are more relevant as starting points to the Pujols conversation than any first baseman. 

This winter meetings, if all goes according to plan, we'll have some idea of what Pujols's camp sees as a starting point. Prepare to gasp, a little. 

3. Cliff Lee, Yankees look around, whistle inconspicuously

Before we get a sense of where the Cliff Lee negotiations will go one question will need to be answered: Is anybody else besides the New York Yankees all in on him? The Yankees have been his presumptive suitor since before the 2010 season began, and while the Texas Rangers haven't yet begged off it's still a matter of if they'll chase him, where for the Yankees it's always been a matter of when they could start. 

Lee is an outstanding pitcher, but his relatively spotty track record for his age might be enough to bring his price down to a range that could make him an interesting option for teams that don't play in New York. But that hasn't happened yet.

4. Carl Crawford's suitors attempt to figure out what Jayson Werth just did

So—that complicates matters. The gap between Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth isn't nearly as large as the sportswriters covering the winter meetings might suggest it is—it's mainly age and durability—but going into this offseason I would have been surprised if someone had suggested seven years, $126 million as anything more than the upper bound for Carl Crawford negotiations, and only if the Yankees were outbid on Cliff Lee.

Crawford's reputation as a team star, a franchise player, makes him similar to Matt Holliday, who got a similar contract last season, but when it came time to actually pay him I think most teams were willing to admit that Holliday is better. But now that enormous deal is just what Jayson Werth got. This isn't like Pujols—I think the second-best outfielder on the market just threw a huge wrench into the hunt for the best outfielder on the market. I'll be interested to see where things go. 

5. Brendan Ryan is traded or not traded

Okay, okay, so this is strictly regional. But for me, assuming a Pujols deal won't be done this week, the Cardinals' success or failure during the Winter Meetings will be dependent on whether or not John Mozeliak is foiled in his plan to trade Brendan Ryan, which he has assured us repeatedly is "worth exploring." 

The way I see it, the Cardinals as constructed have two pressing needs, given their reluctance to move on from Skip Schumaker at second—a utility infielder, which is the rational need, and a backup catcher, which has become a common theme in Mozeliak and La Russa interviews even though I'm not quite convinced of the need. 

So the Cardinals could trade Brendan Ryan for a backup catcher, who will probably not be considerably better than Bryan Anderson. Or they could trade him for a utility infielder, who would be no better at utility infielding than Brendan Ryan. Unless Mozeliak is looking for prospects in return for Ryan, I just don't see a package that justifies the move in the wake of the Theriot and Berkman acquisitions. 

Of course, I didn't see a package that justified the move before those, either, so I might be biased. The winter meetings are all about second-guessing.