All eyes on Beltran

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- He's the two-ton gorilla of baseball's winter meetings.

He isn't in town. He isn't in the hotel lobby. He isn't signed. He isn't even close to signing.

But Carlos Beltran still has found a way to hover over the winter meetings like a traffic copter.

On Saturday, for example, the Houston Astros held a press conference to announce that Roger Clemens was accepting their offer of arbitration.

In and of itself, this would not qualify as your standard big-time winter-meetings blockbuster -- because everyone knows Clemens has about as much chance of seeing an arbitration panel as he does of pitching for the Brewers.

In reality, this was a move designed merely to give Clemens plenty of time to make up his mind if he's going to pitch again.

(The only catch is that if he does now, he can only pitch for the Astros -- not that he was considering signing with the Devil Rays or the Royals or the St. Paul Saints anyway.)

But if you think beyond the horizon just a little bit, you'll realize this was a development with one other fascinating little subplot:

It also gives Clemens plenty of time to see if Beltran re-signs with the Astros.

Had Clemens rejected Houston's offer of arbitration, you see, he and Beltran both would have had to decide whether to return by Jan. 8. But by accepting, Clemens now has all winter.

For Beltran, on the other hand, the clock is ticking.

He can sign with any of the other 29 teams any old time he wants. But if he's going back to Houston -- which might well shape up now as the only other serious bidder beside the Yankees -- he has to make that call in the next few weeks.

Theoretically, of course, Beltran could still do something completely unforeseen and take the Astros up on that arbitration offer. But that would mean settling for about $185 million less than what his congenial agent, Scott Boras, has in mind.

And if you believe Boras will take that route, we have a lovely condo in Afghanistan we'd like to sell you.

So essentially, this was a shrewd way for Clemens to tell Beltran: "Hey, pal: It's your move." On the old free-agent maneuverability scoreboard, you can score it: Clemens 1, Beltran 0.

"It's your prototypical which-comes-first, the-chicken-or-the-egg situation," said Astros GM Tim Purpura. "For us, with Carlos, we have a deadline -- of Jan. 8. If Roger makes a decision in mid-January, at least he'll know by then whether Carlos is coming back or not."

But if part of Beltran's plan, on the other hand, was to wait to see if Clemens is coming back, oops. He won't have that option now -- will he?

"That," Purpura confirmed, "would be correct."

It's an intriguing dilemma, because, for both these men, winning is a major component in their decision.

Clemens knows the Astros won't have anywhere near as good a chance to win without Beltran. Beltran, meanwhile, knows that without Clemens, just about nothing in the Astros' universe will be the same.

Asked how often the agents for other free agents inquire as to whether Clemens plans to be back, Purpura chuckled.

"All the time," he said. "It's pretty much the universal question -- and it should be."

Unfortunately, though, it's a question he can't answer. Because Clemens plans to let his batteries recharge for at least another month.

Worn out from a long season, followed by a trip to Japan, Clemens needs to idle his engine long enough to figure out if he really wants to put in the time to gear his mind and body for a 22nd season.

"The way I interpret it," said Clemens' agent, Randy Hendricks, "is that he knows he could do it again if he had to. But that doesn't mean he will do it again. It's like finishing an Olympic marathon and, as you cross the finish line, someone asking, 'Do you want to run another one?' "

Clemens has to factor in other stuff, too: Family. Health. Age. Money. But as big as any of that is this: He isn't coming back, after writing the perfect ending to a Hall of Fame script, if his team isn't going to be good enough to make the journey worth taking.

So he'll be watching very closely these next few weeks to see whether Beltran returns, how hard the Astros work at convincing him to return and, if Beltran doesn't return, what Houston's Plan B will look like.

But at the same time, the Astros can't be sure how hard to pursue Plan B, because they won't need that plan if Beltran comes bursting back through the door. What a mess.

"Basically," Purpura said, "we have to plan for every contingency."

So they'd laid out all sorts of plans -- targeting people like Steve Finley, Jose Cruz Jr. and Scott Podsednik. Yet it appeared that, until a couple of days ago, their first choice was Finley, who once played center for these very Astros. But then the endless wait for Beltran to get serious took its toll on yet another team.

That would be the Angels -- a club that once had Beltran as the lead item on its holiday shopping list.

When the Angels decided that Boras' 10-year, $200-million demands for Beltran were way out of line, they pounced on Finley -- and reeled him in for eight fewer years and a mere 186 million fewer dollar bills than the other guy's price tag. Talk about your bargains.

"I don't even know what the other guy's price tag was," Angels GM Bill Stoneman deadpanned. "I just know that Steve fit our situation nicely -- and it still leaves us more flexibility to help our club in other places."

There is no law, after all, that says teams have to wait around for Beltran and Boras to get down to business. But with every day that goes by, fewer teams seem willing to do that. Next team out could be the Cubs, who have looked into signing J.D. Drew or trading for Jacque Jones, among other things.

Originally, even Finley planned to wait for Beltran and then position himself as the next-best center fielder on the shelves. But after a while, thanks to Boras' slow-motion negotiating strategy, that no longer became necessary.

"I think all these teams looked at Beltran as a great player -- but were they really going to get him?" said Finley's agent, Tommy Tanzer. "I think Baltimore determined early that they weren't going to get him. Then Philly determined they weren't going to get him. Then these people (the Angels) were next -- and they just moved on Steve."

Another thing we're beginning to hear out there is that, the longer teams find themselves waiting on Beltran -- and the higher Boras sets the money bar -- the more some clubs are beginning to doubt that he's worth A-Rod type money. Or even Vladimir Guerrero type money.

"I'm getting to the point where I really don't care if we sign Carlos Beltran -- not if the cost is too ridiculous," said an executive of one interested team. "I think a lot of people have him overrated. This guy is not a $20-million-a-year player, not if you compare him to A-Rod and guys like that.

"He's got to be in the right lineup, where he'll get pitches to hit. If you look at his numbers -- other than his power/stolen-base ratio -- he's a solid player, but he's not in that 'great' salary plateau where Scott is trying to get him."

An official of another club wondered: "Where are his Gold Gloves? (Uh, he's never won any.) How many batting titles or home run titles has he won? (Uh, that would be zero.) How many all-star teams has he made, playing for a team that had to have one all-star every year? (That would be one -- which he made this year, after being traded.)

"I like the guy," the official said. "Don't get me wrong. But a lot of this hype is based on a perception of him that was formed in October. And the record shows he isn't that player all the time."

Ultimately, of course, Beltran will get his money. Not all 200 million dollars of it, most likely. But enough to go out and buy that new IPod of his dreams, at least.

The question, though, is whether all this posturing and waiting around has really been worth the aggravation?

It has knocked several interesting options off Beltran's plate already. And in the end, he could wind up having to choose between a hometown discount in Houston and a win-or-else paycheck in New York.

It will be fascinating to see which road he winds up driving, all right. So until he decides, the world will be watching.

And oh by the way, so will a fellow named Roger Clemens.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.