NEW ORLEANS -- It isn't always the stuff that actually happens at the winter meetings that matters most. Sometimes it's the stuff that doesn't happen.
So here's a look at the big winter-meetings story lines (Non-A-Rod Division) that were still awaiting their happily-ever-after final chapter as 30 baseball teams headed home for the holidays:
1. Vladimir Guerrero
So what does it say about the bizarre pace of the baseball offseason that Saddam Hussein was acquired before Vladimir Guerrero?
A) It's gotta be collusion? B) Baseball needs to start hiring special-ops forces instead of advance scouts? C) Not only is there no place to move the Expos -- there's not even a place to move former Expos? Or, D) Most of the teams that want him claim to have lost more money lately than Enron?
Well, it might be none of the above. Or it might be all of the above. But it still boggles the mind that a 27-year-old free agent, who could be a franchise player for just about any franchise on the planet, has been actively looking for work for more than a month -- and still doesn't have a team of his own.
That quest could finally end this week, however. Guerrero's agent, Fernando Cuza, will be in Baltimore on Wednesday for a news conference to introduce another SFX client, Miguel Tejada. And at some point during that visit, negotiations are expected to resume on a deal that could turn Guerrero into the latest, greatest package in Peter Angelos' holiday shopping spree.
But is Baltimore where Guerrero really wants to spend the next five, six or seven years of his life?
Friends continue to suggest he's concerned about the weather, the lack of a Latino community in Baltimore and the small number of Spanish-speaking players on the Orioles. And he has reportedly told those same friends that in an ideal world, where all offers were equal, his preference is to sign with Florida.
The trouble is, you can't sign what you haven't been offered. And the Marlins have yet to make any size, shape or flavor of a financial offer, according to baseball people who have spoken to Guerrero's agents and to the Marlins.
The buzz is that owner Jeffrey Loria is trying to determine whether he can come up with the same kind of "special money" the Marlins used last winter to sign Pudge Rodriguez. But if Loria is planning to scrounge up that cash, he'd better head down to the old Savings and Loan in a hurry.
At the moment, there is exactly one team actively bidding on Guerrero. And that's the Orioles. They've already added one prominent Dominican player (Tejada) to their cast. They're about to sign a Spanish-speaking catcher (either Pudge Rodriguez or Javy Lopez). So they've already paved the way for their team to be a more desirable attraction. And they would like to close this deal in the next week.
So unless Florida makes a quick, sincere, legitimate move in Guerrero's direction, you can expect one more magical name to start collecting his mail in the shadow of the B&O Warehouse.
Clemens has done nothing to stop that talk in the last week. Pettitte has actively poured premium unleaded in its tank. And the Astros have done everything but hang a Clemens jersey from Tal's Hill to make it obvious they're all for it.
Over the last few days, we've surveyed a large cross-section of baseball people with every conceivable connection to this situation. And just about every one of them predicts it will happen.
The signs are everywhere: Clemens was scheduled to play golf with Jeff Bagwell on Tuesday. He's going to Hawaii on a family vacation with the Pettittes later in the month. He's working out like no retiree in the history of the AARP. He lives 10 miles from the ballpark in Houston. He has even indicated to Astros owner Drayton McLane he's willing to be flexible on the financial terms.
There's only one problem: This bandwagon started careening downhill way too early in the offseason. It's still two months until spring training. Clemens doesn't have to make any decisions now, next week or even (according to his agents) next month.
And as pumped as he is to weave this perfect hometown fairy tale right this minute, there is going to come a time, between now and Pitchers-and-Catchers, when he begins to weigh the cons of unretiring as heavily as he's pondering the pros.
If he retires right now, says agent Randy Hendricks, he gets to exit with a nearly perfect ending -- striking out the final hitter of his career in a World Series game, as flash bulbs sparkled in the night.
"He has the opportunity to go out on top," Hendricks said. "And it's hard to trifle with that. On the other hand, you juxtapose that with the other alternative -- to join an Astros team with a shot at the World Series, as a hometown kid, with the town going crazy and the team ready to roll out the red carpet. He's still got that burning desire to play. And it's hard not to continue.
"But you've still got one more element," Hendricks said. "And that's the family decision."
What happens if his wife and kids raise vehement objections? What happens if Clemens watches that World Series video one too many times? What happens if he prefers the final chapter he's already got to the chapter not yet written? What happens if he starts feeling guilty about cutting his cords to the Yankees?
So it's not as done a deal as we've all made it out to be. But if we were going to cast a wager, we'd bet you'll be seeing this man throwing out the first ball on opening day at Minute Maid Park next April -- and he won't be wearing a suit and tie when he does it, either.
3. Pudge Rodriguez and 4. Javy Lopez
They live in a parallel universe. They play the same position. They talk to the same teams. They are the two best catchers to show up on the shelves of the free-agent supermarket in years. And when one signs, the other probably won't be far behind.
The only thing certain is that one of them is going to be an Oriole. Baltimore has talked to them both -- offering Rodriguez a three-year deal worth between $7 million and $10 million a year (depending on whose agent and whose accountant you believe) and offering Lopez a three-year deal believed to be worth about $6 million a year.
Clearly, though, the Orioles' first choice is to sign Rodriguez. That would be obvious from the size of their offer. That would also be obvious because they negotiated with Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, all of Sunday night, until close to 5 a.m.
Afterward, however, Boras claimed Rodriguez is still considering three or four teams -- even though none of them has surfaced publicly. The Cubs have kept their distance, and don't plan to offer any player more than a two-year deal. The Dodgers also are believed to have some interest, but may be tapped out if they trade for Nomar Garciaparra.
So Rodriguez still figures to wind up in Baltimore in the next day or two. But if he and Boras continue to run their delay offense, the Orioles could turn back to Lopez in one snap of the fingers. So they'd better not stall too long.
Meanwhile, if Lopez doesn't end up in Baltimore, he could surface in Florida -- with a similar contract to the deal Rodriguez turned down (two years, about $14 million). Or he might be able to talk his way into Chicago, if he's willing to accept a short-term contract.
But at least both these free-agent flights are beginning their final descent. And in a week, the best catcher on the market figures to be Mike DiFelice.
5. Greg Maddux and 6. Kevin Millwood
For two guys who have won nearly twice as many games as they've lost in their careers, it sure has been a quiet free-agent winter. A little too quiet.
But that seems to have more to do with the mammoth price tags Boras has been floating around the marketplace than it does with their desirability.
Before Boras turned down a since-yanked three-year, $30-million offer from the Phillies on Kevin Millwood last month, he intimated Millwood had a five-year offer at big-time bucks that he couldn't wait to accept. Instead, Millwood seems almost certain to take the Phillies' offer of arbitration -- and go back to Philadelphia on a one-year deal at $11-12 million.
The alternatives? Oh, the Cardinals and Mets have poked around, exploring what it might take to keep him from saying yes to the Phillies. And Boras tried his best to add to the intrigue Monday by calling Millwood "the submarine race of the winter meetings" (meaning there's lots of excitement about him below sea level).
"He's going to have a couple of good decisions to make," he said, at his cheery agent-like best.
But Millwood's friends say it would be a shock if he ended up anywhere other than Philadelphia -- unless the Cardinals clear a huge chunk of payroll in the next few days. And there's no sign that's doable.
Then there's Greg Maddux, one of the great pitchers of his time and a man only 11 wins away from No. 300. If he weren't about to turn 38 years old, maybe teams wouldn't be fleeing in the other direction when Boras talks of three- or four-year contracts, at eight figures a year.
But as long as Boras wants to play rough, he'll have an unemployed living legend on his hands.
The Padres have indicated they're interested, if Maddux wants to take something in the neighborhood of two years, $10-12 million, to play at home. The Diamondbacks have hinted they're also interested, at the same salary level, if they can move a hunk of closer Matt Mantei's $7-million paycheck. The Cubs, Maddux's first team, have sent signals they would be an option, too -- if the price gets marked down after Christmas.
Boras said Monday that Maddux wants to talk to several teams personally and weigh the big picture -- because for a guy like this, this is a decision that "goes well beyond the economics."
So great. Once he stops thinking about the economics -- and starts thinking about where he'd like to live and how he'd like to finish a spectacular career -- he'll have no trouble eliminating himself from the unemployment line.
But until then, he's welcome to keep Glendon Rusch, Garret Stephenson and Todd Ritchie company in the Unsigned Free Agent section of your local sports page for as long as he finds that entertaining.