LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It's getting to be an annual December tradition, right up there with the winter solstice, gridlock in the mall parking lot and the latest in bad Santa Claus movies:
Red Sox head for the winter meetings, talking about trading Manny Ramirez seriously, this time for sure.
Red Sox then depart from the winter meetings, unable to trade Manny Ramirez despite extensive conversations with every team but the Tijuana Toros.
It happened in 2004. It happened in 2005. And unless those Tijuana Toros roar out of nowhere with a monster offer, it's all but certain to happen again this year.
Sources all over baseball were describing this year's Manny-fest as being so devoid of life Tuesday night that the odds of a Manny blockbuster this year, and possibly ever, could be described as "not exactly impossible, but [highly unlikely]."
In fact, the Red Sox appeared to be so far apart with the most prominent teams on their talk circuit the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, Padres and Mariners that some people in baseball were wondering if they ever really seriously intended to trade Ramirez at all.
"Given what they asked for," said an official of one club that did some brief Manny shopping, "my theory is that the Red Sox were almost staging the whole thing, just so they can go back to Manny and say, 'See, we tried. We just can't trade you.' "
Whether that theory is true depends on how conspiratorial you want to get. But what we know, according to a wide array of baseball men, is that the Red Sox targeted closers and high-ceiling prospects on all the clubs they spoke with, and asked for three of those players back in every deal.
All of those teams apparently complained about that price. But indications are that the Red Sox had more method to their madness than their critics are giving them credit for.
In reality, they apparently patterned their asking price after the return the Yankees got when they traded Gary Sheffield to Detroit last month three young players, at least two of whom had high ceilings.
As if that request wasn't enough to blow up most of the conversations, one team said it lost interest for good after it also was told that "there was no guarantee [Ramirez] wouldn't want both of his options picked up." Those options, for 2009 and 2010, are for the not-quite-bargain-basement rate of $20 million each, raising Ramirez's remaining salary obligation from $38 million to $78 million.
That part of the equation wasn't coming from the Red Sox, however. It was all in the hands of Manny and his agent, Greg Genske. But again, the Red Sox could claim that it shouldn't have any effect on the talent coming back, since Ramirez's contract issues weren't all that different from the Sheffield deal, either.
Sheffield got a two-year, $28 million extension from Detroit essentially because the Tigers viewed him as a potential attitude problem without that extension even though he is 38 years old and coming off wrist surgery. Ramirez, on the other hand, is only 34 and, theoretically, healthy all those September games he missed with mysterious knee issues notwithstanding.
"If you take on two more years of that guy, you're just playing a game of chicken. I'll tell you that."
-- A major league GM
But Manny is also viewed as maybe baseball's loosest cannon. As one semi-amused GM said, "If you take on two more years of that guy, you're just playing a game of chicken. I'll tell you that."
So with the clock ticking toward the Red Sox's self-imposed Wednesday deadline either to get Ramirez traded or to move on, we'd advise putting all your chips on that move-on option. The question is whether this is the final Manny-fest, or whether the Red Sox will be right back in the same spot next July or next December or both.
Well, as December traditions go, the Red Sox obviously prefer the annual office Christmas party to the annual we-still-can't-trade Manny party. But unless Ramirez discovers some newfound contentment in Boston and stops asking to get traded, we'd bet we haven't heard the last of this.
In the meantime, the Red Sox's biggest challenge is to get Manny motivated to play after yet another trade-rumor extravaganza that went nowhere.
"That," said an executive of one club, "shouldn't be much of an issue. They've dealt with this three straight years, and all the guy has done, in the end, is showed up and mashed."
Winter Meetings Rumblings
• When we polled a bunch of baseball people before these meetings to ask which prominent player was most likely to get traded, the most popular prediction was Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli. But the odds of Baldelli getting dealt any time soon seem to be shrinking by the minute.
There are a bunch of teams hunting for center fielders including the Rangers, Cubs, White Sox, Marlins and Rockies. But an official of one team that inquired about Baldelli said the Devil Rays asked for possibly their two best prospects "so I think we'll try something else. I don't think they're being too realistic."
An official of yet another club, however, said he foresees the Rays eventually lowering the price because they need to open an outfield spot for former No. 1 pick B.J. Upton. "Basically," the official said, "they need to move him, because, at some point, the limits of the lineup card come into play. They can't start more than three outfielders at one time, can they?"
• Most of the speculation on free-agent left-hander Ted Lilly has been pointing toward him ending up with either the Cubs or back in Toronto. But one baseball man who knows Lilly says he actually "would like to go to the Yankees."
The Yankees apparently have gotten the same signals. So one baseball man who spoke with them Tuesday said they have decided to make Lilly and their other starting-pitching target, Andy Pettitte, "two separate decisions." In other words, the club has concluded it could fit them both in if needed. But another source described the Yankees as being unsure if Lilly was worth the four-year, $40 million price tag he is believed to be seeking.
• No matter what happens with Lilly, Pettitte remains the Yankees' first choice. And his agent, Randy Hendricks, said in an e-mail Tuesday night that Pettitte now plans to decide whether he'll play by Dec. 22. But one baseball official who spoke with the Yankees on Tuesday came away with the impression that the Yankees are skeptical of Pettitte's willingness to leave Houston.
Astros manager Phil Garner seconded that motion, saying: "I certainly am entertained by my biased feel he wants to be in Houston, he needs to be in Houston, and we want him to be in Houston, and his family is dying for him to be in Houston. His kids are pining every day at school, wondering, 'Oh, daddy, please don't go anywhere else. Stay in Houston.' I could hear it all over the city."
• Another new twist on the free-agent pitcher front is that the Cubs appear to be pursuing both Lilly and Gil Meche, instead of one or the other.
The Cubs' original strategy this week was to sign one of those two and then trade for a second starter. But it's shaping up as such a tough winter to trade for a starting pitcher that they seem to have concluded now that they'd rather throw some more money around than give up the prospects it would take to trade for someone like Colorado's Jason Jennings.
Aside from Jennings, Baltimore's Rodrigo Lopez and one of the White Sox's excess starters (Freddy Garcia, Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle), there's almost no starting pitching out there to acquire in a trade. But one AL executive says that could easily change in a few weeks.
"The problem right now is that the free-agent pitchers haven't come off the board," he said. "People don't make trades these days until they're forced to make trades. If you can spend money, rather than give up a player you like, you'll spend the money every time. And right now, the industry is so healthy, there's plenty of money in the market."
• The conventional thinking last week was that free agent Jason Schmidt would sign before the end of these meetings. But clubs that have been chasing Schmidt say his agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, have moved so slowly this week that teams believe they're trying to keep Schmidt on the market until either Barry Zito or Daisuke Matsuzaka signs if not both.
That slowdown in those talks has led at least two teams to consider other options. Seattle is now in on Zito with a greater level of interest than expected. And the Dodgers are also weighing their alternatives. There were indications they've now added Jeff Suppan to their shopping list.
• Add the Phillies to the list of teams trying to figure out a way to deal for Freddy Garcia. But an official of one team that has talked to both the Phillies and White Sox said there's "no chance" of that trade happening, at least in the near future.
• The Marlins continue to hunt for a young center fielder. Three names it's believed they've talked about, besides Baldelli: Cleveland's Franklin Gutierrez, Boston's David Murphy and Tampa Bay's Elijah Dukes (although Dukes is actually a right fielder).
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.