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11/17/10 10:00 AM EST

Free agency dictated by top chips, not dates

Baseball's top tier of free agents -- a group that includes the likes of Cliff Lee, Adrian Beltre, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth -- carries plenty of clout with its offseason demands. Of course, you already knew that.

These players have earned the right to seek mind-boggling contract figures and incentives, and request as many years as they desire. Each will get his choice of multiple destinations. Each has earned the chance to listen to the speeches, be swayed by the pleas, to weigh the options.

And yet, this top crop of available players has even more power than one might think.

Major League Baseball can do what it wants in shuffling around key offseason dates to encourage early spending and quicker signs, but ultimately, the timetable will continue to be driven by one thing baseball cannot control: the financial and contractual desires of the top players on the market.

For the starting pitching market to truly develop, Lee must first sign. Beltre and Crawford and Werth are going to have to go before there is serious urgency to land other middle-of-the-order bats. It's all intertwined, you see. The power lies in those players who have earned the opportunity to hold it. And it may or may not work on baseball's optimal schedule.

"I think everybody's interested in getting something accomplished," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "From their perspective, it usually doesn't work that way, and that's what takes so long, is trying to find something that's fair, whether it's club-to-player or club-to-club. Defining fair is the hard part. That usually takes a while."

There is no way to control timetables set by agents and teams at this time of the year, but MLB gave it its best effort. The window for teams to negotiate exclusively with their free agents shrunk from 15 days to five, creating a much earlier free-for-all this month.

The date to offer arbitration to free agents and thus secure Draft-pick compensation is earlier. So, too, is the date to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players, as it now falls before, instead of after, the Winter Meetings.

GMs and agents are in agreement that discussions have started earlier than usual, though that was predictable. But discussions don't always equate into deals. Phone calls don't mean contracts are being drawn up. Interest doesn't always signify an ability to bite.

"It doesn't feel all that different," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said of the expedited process. "I think getting more players onto the market earlier is an advantage to both the players and the clubs, rather than delaying the process. But it feels like every other year, just maybe four or five or six days ahead of it."

And maybe it doesn't feel all that different because essentially it's the same as it's always been -- the best control the rest.

Take Lee, for example. Unquestionably the gem in a free-agent market that lacks top-of-the-rotation talent, Lee can take his time. He can hear all the offers, consider all the options, and, while he does all this, freeze much of the market.

Once he picks who is going to write his next check, the suitors that missed out will begin fishing for starters in the middle-tier market. Offers to guys like Jorge De La Rosa, Javier Vazquez, Jon Garland and Kevin Millwood should become more appealing with the addition of more interested teams.

It's the principle of supply and demand at its purest.

Agents know that and will wait things out to acquire the leverage. Clubs understand it and will grudgingly have to accept the reality that their timetables will be stalled. This even goes for those teams that are avoiding the top-tier options from the start, as its targets will mostly assume a wait-it-out stance to maximize the interests in their services.

The links are even more tangled than just that, too. To a certain degree, the trade market is affected by the flow of free-agent signings. Often it takes free agents beginning to fall off the board before the urgency to address a need via a trade augments.

And then there are the teams whose needs will change once that top crop of free agents falls. The Red Sox, for instance, will have to target a corner bat if Beltre doesn't re-sign with them. The Tigers appear to have targeted Victor Martinez early, though if they can't secure him, watch for their attention to turn to Werth or Adam Dunn or Crawford.

You get the point. It's essentially all one big complex puzzle, a puzzle in which most of the middle pieces can't be filled in until after the border is assembled.

"All 30 of [the] GMs are aggressive," Cashman said. "I'm ready to move if I can move on something that makes sense. We just wait and see if it makes sense for anybody else, an agent or a club."

The hypothesis is that by pushing up key offseason dates, the winter activity will develop earlier. To this point, the result is simply categorized by a string of three letters: TBD.

The General Managers Meetings -- a two-day gathering that began in Orlando on Tuesday -- aren't likely to be a trusty gauge with which to measure any difference, as the purpose of these meetings is more to hash out business objectives than to enhance trade discussions.

The best litmus test of tangible change should come at the Winter Meetings in early December. By then, the market will include all non-tendered players, which takes out the guessing game employed in years past.

"I certainly think there will be stuff happening at the Winter Meetings and beyond," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. "But I do think there's a chance that things get moved forward because of those dates."

In two months, will we be crediting this compressed set of dates for everything settling into place earlier than usual? Maybe. But really, credit would be due to those premier free-agent chips, the true movers and shakers at this time of the year.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.