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GM meetings should be flush with activity

The four-day event known as the general managers meetings once was where baseball's movers and shakers gathered to lay groundwork for trades and hold preliminary negotiations for free agents.

In large part that hasn't changed. But with a $12 million rise in the luxury tax threshold (now $148 million) thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement and today marking the first day teams can negotiate with free agents, these meetings could take on added importance.

"This is going to be an offseason of surprises and little predictability," said Indians GM Mark Shapiro from Naples, Fla., where the meetings get underway tomorrow night. Shapiro and Padres GM Kevin Towers already have orchestrated the first impact trade of the offseason, with second baseman Josh Barfield shipped to the Indians for third base prospect Kevin Kouzmanoff and righthander Andrew Brown last week.

"Teams will want to strike fast and players will want to wait and find out at what level the offers rise," Shapiro said. "Some teams will inevitably get left out as there is simply not enough talent available and few, if any, will be able to fill all of their needs or holes."

If the Red Sox land star Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka they will be way ahead of the game. Their goal was to land one starting pitcher and Matsuzaka is potentially the most talented one on the market, and the youngest (26) to boot.

To win the tug of war over free agents, teams must be willing to overpay. And with the added luxury tax money, the most aggressive pursuers may not be relegated to the big-market teams. Last year, Toronto was extremely aggressive in the free agent market and was able to land a top closer (B.J. Ryan), a top starter (A.J. Burnett), and a big bat (Troy Glaus).

A look at which teams might be the most aggressive this year:

1. Chicago Cubs: They need to make a splash after last season's disaster. Hiring Lou Piniella as manager was a start. They are waiting on whether third baseman Aramis Ramirez re-signs (they've offered five years, $75 million), with Nomar Garciaparra a fallback if Ramirez goes. The Cubs will be in on Jason Schmidt, Miguel Batista, and Ted Lilly to team with Carlos Zambrano and Milton's Rich Hill in the rotation. They also covet Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee. This is a team in flux with the Chicago Tribune looking to sell.

2. Boston: In the AL East -- where the Yankees are still king and the Blue Jays are rising -- the Red Sox can ill afford to do little. The Sox are in on everyone from Julio Lugo to J.D. Drew. They must decide whether they want to deal Manny Ramírez. Theo Epstein said last week the Sox need a starting pitcher, two relievers (preferably one lefthanded), a second baseman, a shortstop, and a right fielder. That's a lot.

3. Baltimore: Peter Angelos appears to be ready to spend again. Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette have a much better building plan than in years past. The big issue here is do they build around Miguel Tejada or use him as a chip in revamping their team? The Orioles are looking for pitching, a power-hitting outfielder, and a first baseman. They'll be a player for Soriano and Lee.

4. Houston: With Jeff Bagwell gone and Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte uncertain on returning (or perhaps retiring), the Astros have money to spend. They need pitching, they're front-runners for Lee, and they might be in position to deal Brad Lidge.

5. St. Louis: The Cardinals must decide on bringing back free agent pitchers Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis, and second baseman Ronnie Belliard. They might also look to upgrade in the outfield, where Juan Encarnacion doesn't appear to be the answer. They might be an outside contender for Barry Zito.

6. Philadelphia: A team that came awfully close to making the playoffs after giving up at the trade deadline is looking for a thumper in its lineup and bullpen help. Soriano remains No. 1 on the Phillies' list, but Manny Ramírez is a possibility. They need a catcher, an outfielder, and a starting pitcher. They want to move Pat Burrell.

7. Los Angeles Angels: Owner Arte Moreno is looking to make a splash, whether it be Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Manny, Tejada, someone. The Angels have a bunch of top young players to offer. They know they need to get better to keep up in the AL West.

8. Texas: Tom Hicks thinks he's one stalwart pitcher away from being a strong playoff team, which is why he bid on Matsuzaka. With new manager Ron Washington, the feeling is the Rangers will play looser. There's a belief first baseman Mark Teixeira might be shopped, and although Michael Young's name has also come up, don't hold your breath on that one.

9. Cleveland: Shapiro already has solved his second base issue with the acquisition of Barfield. Now he needs to revamp his bullpen, add another big bat, and hope he has enough to compete with the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox in the AL Central.

10. San Diego: Armed with a contract through the '08 season, Towers already has dealt for Kouzmanoff, who batted .379 with 22 homers and 75 RBIs in 94 games in the minors last season. He will now address needs in starting pitching and outfield (if he loses Dave Roberts). He's already saved $8 million not re-signing Ryan Klesko.

Wedge squeezes in some time

A few questions for Indians manager Eric Wedge:

Q: Are you on board with Buck Showalter being hired as an adviser by the Indians?

A: "Absolutely. I've been involved with [general manager] Mark [Shapiro] on getting Buck here all along. Buck is a very bright baseball man. We're looking for any way to get better and having a set of eyes as astute as Buck will be a huge asset to our team. It's really no different than when we had Grover [former Indians and current Seattle manager Mike Hargrove] here to do a similar thing. This isn't about ego. This is about getting better as a team on the field."

Q: Are you excited about getting Josh Barfield from San Diego to plug in at second base?

A: "We have one of the most outstanding young players in the game at that position. Josh loves baseball. He comes from a baseball family and he learned how to play the game the right way. He's going to add a new dimension to our lineup. We were very fortunate to be able to get such a good young player."

Q: Playing in such a competitive division, do you feel that you have to strike quickly in the offseason?

A: "There's no question we're in the toughest division in baseball and, after the season we had a year ago, we have to do some things to get our team back to where we feel we can be. I think if you don't act quickly you're going to be left out. We have needs that are very obvious that we have to address."

Q: What do you feel those needs are?

A: "Obviously, like many other teams, we need to revamp our bullpen. It's been our Achilles' heel and we need to add some arms. We just need to be better overall and create more depth on our team."

Q: Might you make another deal soon?

A: "You never know. We're working on it. I've been meeting with Mark and we're discussing a few things. I think you always have to find ways to get better. There's no standing still in this game, especially in our division."

Cagey move or wild pitch? Tigers will just wait and see

Only time will tell whether the Tigers made a wise move by trading three young pitchers for the disgruntled Gary Sheffield Friday, and giving the soon-to-be 38-year-old slugger a two-year, $28 million extension. The Tigers certainly needed another big hitter and Sheffield, who played for Jim Leyland in Florida in 1997, fills that need.

But did the Tigers give up too much? Righthanded starter Humberto Sanchez, a Bronx native, had 129 strikeouts in 123 innings at Double and Triple A, going 10-6 with a 2.53 ERA. Righthander Kevin Whelan, 22, had 27 saves for Class A Lakeland. Another righty, Anthony Claggett, 22, was 7-2 with a 0.91 ERA and 14 saves for Class A West Michigan.

Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon, speaking from his Orlando, Fla., home Friday night, said he was sorry to see Sheffield go, but added, "We needed to get some young pitching and this trade accomplished that." Damon said he spoke to general manager Brian Cashman Friday and is confident the Yankees can go further in the playoffs next year.

"I think Brian knows he needs to improve our pitching and he's working very hard on that. I think this deal is a step toward that," Damon said.

The Tigers still will be solid pitching-wise. Lefthander Mike Maroth is returning from an arm injury and No. 1 pick Andrew Miller is not far from a permanent home in the Motor City. But injuries could turn a World Series team into an also-ran in a hurry in a very tough division.

For the Yankees, one scout familiar with their system said, "This is exactly the kind of deal they needed to make. They've got Philip Hughes and pray for rain, and now they get to replenish their young pitching corps. Sanchez needs a little refining and discipline, but he could emerge for them. I don't know if they had a chance to deal Shef to the White Sox for one of their established guys, but I think this is better because they need to get younger."

Etc.

Triple Crown of his own
Apropos of nothing: 1. The Boston Baseball Writers Association dinner is always a good take. At this year's dinner, at the Boston Convention Center Jan. 11, Jonathan Papelbon will receive three awards -- Red Sox pitcher of the year, rookie of the year, and fireman of the year; 2. Phillies GM Pat Gillick did a nice thing letting recently appointed third base coach Art Howe leave to be bench coach for his friend Ron Washington in Texas. Gillick could have made Howe fulfill his contact; 3. I'm told it was a nice touch honoring Dave Roberts's stolen base in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS at the Red Sox Hall of Fame dinner Thursday night. Former colleague Peter Gammons attended and said, "Dick Williams was truly touched and honored being inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame."; 4. It's great that one of the classiest men to wear a baseball uniform, Craig Biggio, gets to celebrate his 3,000th hit as an Astro next season; 5. Who's at Fenway working out every day? David Ortiz, of course.

Not getting the take sign
Former Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson isn't sure why he hasn't been able to land a major league job, but with Washington and Oakland yet to name managers Jackson is holding out hope. "I'm sure something will come up, but it's a little bit discouraging," he said. Jackson might have to settle for a minor league job.

They'll be in contact
One of Brook Jacoby's biggest jobs as new hitting coach of the Reds is to reduce Adam Dunn's strikeouts. "I dealt with Dunn when he was in the Reds' minor league system so I have an idea with him," said Jacoby. "I'd say 194 strikeouts is a big issue. If you put the ball in play, you have more RBIs and more hits. It could be approach, it could be mechanical. We'll sit and talk and I like to think something can be improved with him."

Not a shining example
Winter ball can provide interesting stories, but what a disaster for the White Sox. La Guaira in Venezuela fired White Sox minor league manager Razor Shines as its manager after a slow start, and with him went some key players -- outfielders Brian Anderson and Ryan Sweeney, third baseman Josh Fields, and pitchers Heath Phillips and Sean Tracey. Reliever Boone Logan also came back home because of shoulder stiffness.

Arizona GM backs Foulke
Arizona GM Josh Byrnes believes Boston fans should never forget what Keith Foulke meant to the Red Sox' 2004 world championship team. "I think his contribution speaks for itself. He had a great year and then he had a phenomenal postseason," said Byrnes. "He was exactly what we needed at the time and he fulfilled all of our expectations." Because Foulke has a desire to pitch close to his home in the Phoenix area, Byrnes said that he would take a long look at Foulke, who has improved after suffering back, elbow, and knee injuries last season.

He's great, but wait . . .
New Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes, who spent last season with Alfonso Soriano in Washington, said this of the free agent outfielder: "Nobody, pound for pound, hits the ball as hard as this guy. He would be great for this team. He would be great for this city. He would be great in this ballpark." No doubt the Phillies will engage in the bidding for Soriano, which could exceed $15 million per year. But Lopes gives cause for pause when he said, "I don't think he's the main guy that you want. But he can be a missing piece."

Time to accessorize
One name to keep in mind is free agent Frank Catalanotto. The Sox might have some interest in the 10-year veteran as an extra outfielder. The Sox currently have another ex-Blue Jay, Eric Hinske, in that role, but Catalanotto, who hit .300 last season in 437 at-bats with seven homers and 56 RBIs, might be a better option. The Jays have interest in bringing Catalanotto back.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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