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No medal for fourth place in SS race

You’ve already seen the Jose Reyes rumors. If he makes a decision to sign with the Miami Marlins, the team would suddenly have two of the very few playable people at short between the former Met and Hanley Ramirez. Such a signing would make an already grim bit of holiday shopping for several NL contenders into a deal-or-die exercise.

Consider which players are on the market at short beyond Reyes: Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal and... and a collection of people you sign with a sense of necessity, if not outright regret. Clint Barmes. Ronny Cedeno. Even Cesar Izturis. It’s the sort of market that might make even Nick Punto or Jack Wilson start to look good, even for guaranteed money.

Then consider which teams have postseason ambitions for 2012, and who also need a shortstop -- and their chance for Reyes already gone. Start with the world champion Cardinals sans Furcal, the Phillies sans Rollins, the Braves, the Brewers and the Giants. They’re all more likely to spend on a shortstop than the back-of-the-pack teams needing to find a shortstop, like the Astros and Pirates.

And that’s the problem in a nutshell at shortstop: There aren’t all that many somebodies capable of playing a good short and contributing on offense to go around. If Reyes settles early, the subsequent scramble could be the most interesting development of the winter. At the very least, the bidding on Rollins could go nuts, especially those teams that don’t have a shortstop prospect worthy of the name in their very near future. The Phillies have their hopes for Freddy Galvis, the Braves their own for Tyler Pastornicky; both clubs are probably the willing “losers” on this winter’s shortstop market, gunning for veteran shortstops they can sign for a year to keep the seat warm.

But that kind of consideration aside, this is one line you don’t want to be fourth in. The expectation the Pirates will pay Barmes eight figures over two years illustrates the downside. Even if you like Barmes’ defense, he’ll struggle to achieve a .300 OBP -- he’s at .302 career, 10 points better than Yuniesky Betancourt, 11 better than Alex Gonzalez.

As a result, the chance is obviously there for teams with some depth at short to make a trade. The Red Sox have their surplus with Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles all marking time while Jose Iglesias approaches the majors. There’s some speculation the Nats could swap Ian Desmond, which might involve pushing Danny Espinosa across the bag to short to make room for Stephen Lombardozzi at second. (That sort of creative expansion of shortstop alternatives helps explain why the Twins struck early to add Jamey Carroll, despite questions about his defense.) Given the potential payoff in prospects if the Padres are willing to deal, Josh Byrnes may well decide to peddle Jason Bartlett’s remaining season under contract -- for $5.5 million, or what now might be referred to as Clint Barmes money -- to a contender.

Indeed, the market's so weak and the contrast between the big three of Reyes, Rollins and Rafael Furcal versus all of the alternatives so significant, that you can understand why a team that doesn't get its top target this winter might decide to change gears and chase one of the shortstops. Take the Cardinals' situation. If they can't convince Albert Pujols to stick around, they shouldn't throw the money at another first baseman -- they have Lance Berkman already available to move to first, creating an opening for Allen Craig. They'd still be short at shortstop, though, which might drive GM John Mozeliak's top priority to be going after Rollins or retaining Furcal.

For those teams that don’t get Reyes or Rollins or Furcal, they can still potentially win with the other guys. The D’backs made it into the postseason with Willie Bloomquist doing his gosh-darned best bit of David Eckstein impersonation at short, and the Brewers treated people to the spectacle of being the first and probably last team to reach a League Championship Series with Betancourt as its everyday shortstop. And the Cardinals got by with Ryan Theriot at short for a significant portion of the season -- before taking off down the stretch for, among other reasons, replacing him with Furcal.

But with Furcal starting the Cardinals went 29-18. It’s that sort of immediate pick-me-up that will help inspire GMs to try and avoid finishing fourth in this particular race, because the difference between the shortstops you want to pay to play, and the ones you employ because you have to is so stark.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.