NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Money dominated the winter meetings in the late 1990s. The lack of it, for many teams, hovers over this year's session, and pouncing on the Montreal Expos' top stars is the objective for some.
When executives gathered in Boston this time last year, it was unclear whether the Expos would even exist in 2002. When they got together Friday in Nashville, they knew there will be a team in Montreal, but it may not include Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon or Javier Vazquez.
``We had to be creative last year in putting our team together. We're going to have to be more creative this year in putting our team together,'' Expos general manager Omar Minaya said.
Larry Walker, Sean Casey, Rondell White, Erubiel Durazo, Denny Neagle, Sterling Hitchcock and Rey Ordonez are among those whose names have been in trade talks of late, and several big-name free agents are still on the market, including Greg Maddux, Jeff Kent, Ivan Rodriguez, Cliff Floyd and Hideki Matsui.
``I think there's about 11 teams, 12 teams that need a No. 3 starter or above and there are about six starters of that caliber who are free agents and one or two who are available for trade,'' said Scott Boras, who represents Maddux and Kenny Rogers. ``I think it will be pretty active for the pitchers.''
When baseball last gathered in Nashville, after the 1998 season, Boras negotiated the sport's first $100 million contract _ a record $105 million, seven-year deal between Kevin Brown and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He more than doubled it two years ago in Dallas when Alex Rodriguez agreed to a $252 million, 10-year contract with Texas.
At the 2001 meetings in Boston, there were just six free-agent signings announced, for a total of just over $40 million, down from $739 million given to 25 players in Dallas. There were 10 trades involving 37 players last year.
The market has slowed even more this fall, prices dropping because of the lack of big-name free agents in their prime, a sluggish economy that has slowed revenue and the new labor contract, which forces the big spenders to give up more of their money.
``We're working under an environment now that is different than what we're used to operating under,'' Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. ``The only priority I have is to evaluate all the opportunities that present themselves to the Yankees and see if it fits our current direction, which is reducing payroll and getting our club back to where we want it to be.''
Still, New York is interested in Matsui, a three-time MVP of Japan's Central League, and possibly Jose Contreras, a Cuban pitcher who defected.
Other teams will be trying to add bits and pieces instead of big stars.
``We are going to be very careful, we are going to stick with the plan. We will not overspend,'' Rangers president Michael Cramer said. ``We've proven you can spend a lot of money and not win. I think we'd like to try it the other way.''
Fred Lynn, Joe Carter, John Franco, Randy Myers, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Edgar Renteria are among who changed teams during past winter meetings at the vast Opryland Hotel, which has thousands of rooms, multiple lobbies and even its own river _ making it easy for team officials and agents to talk in privacy.
Minaya figures to be in the center of trade talk. The Expos were purchased by the other 29 teams earlier this year from Jeffrey Loria, and they are operated by the commissioner's office, which wants the team's payroll to be about $40 million, roughly its 2002 level. Without a deal, it would rise to $50 million because of built-in raises and salary arbitration.
That has GMs salivating over Guerrero ($11.5 million), Colon ($8.25 million) and Vazquez (eligible for arbitration after making $4,775,000). Teams also are interested in second baseman Jose Vidro ($5.5 million), third baseman Fernando Tatis ($6.25 million), shortstop Orlando Cabrera (eligible for arbitration after making $2.4 million), catcher Michael Barrett (eligible for arbitration after making $1.15 million) and pitcher Tony Armas Jr. (in arbitration for the first time).
``We're just lining up teams. We'll start meeting with them tomorrow,'' Minaya said. ``I'm going to be positive about this. I'm looking forward to the challenge. In the past, I've made trades in which people claimed they were not given equal opportunity, If anybody has interest in my players, they have the ability to talk to me before I make a trade.''
To prepare for the meetings, Minaya went to the Dominican Republic last weekend to meet with Guerrero and Colon, both eligible for free agency after next season. Minaya would be interested in working out extensions that would lower their 2003 salaries, helping him keep the core of the Expos together.
``From the early phone calls, it seems clubs have a lot of interest in our players,'' Minaya said. ``We'll see. Winter meetings take on a life of their own.''