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Why MLB seems headed toward a lockout -- and how that'll create a free-agent frenzy

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CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Here in paradise, a place where the sun shines every hour available, a cloak of darkness was omnipresent this week. Almost every substantive conversation at Major League Baseball's GM meetings touched on -- or, quite often, centered around -- the Dec. 1 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, which would be followed by a lockout of the players and an indefinite shutdown of the sport. Even if there remains optimism in most corners that no one would be myopic enough for games to be lost to the first labor stoppage in more than a quarter-century, the prospect of a gloomy winter nevertheless colored the proceedings and already is shaping baseball in unexpected ways.

While the meetings produced two signings for a combined $10.5 million and zero trades, the villas and suites at the Omni La Costa resort bustled with activity -- the sorts of conversations typically reserved for December's winter meetings, which were treated as if they're not happening. The looming threat of a lockout, seen by most as an inevitability at this point, is creating a dynamic that underpinned talks all week. Words were spoken, ideas bandied about, groundwork for deals laid. And everyone looked at everyone else thinking the same thing, though no one dared say it aloud.

How much of this is real, and how much of it is posturing?

In the coming days, weeks, months, the answers of what was genuine at the GM meetings will reveal themselves. The most interesting twist, certainly, occurred on the free-agent side. Teams essentially suggested players have a choice: Sign before the lockout or wait until February, when most everyone expects the labor discord to end, and have fun navigating the frenzy of signings and trades that will ensue. Agents for some of the highest-profile free agents this winter, in the meantime, inverted the posture: If you want a player, step up financially, because the February stampede is going to be so different, so unfamiliar, that it's worth paying more for certainty now than having to overpay or be left empty-handed on the eve of the season.