THE WINTER meetings were winding down. The next morning the Rule 5 draft would be held and then the baseball executives who had taken over the Indianapolis Downtown Marriott would flee for the doors in the annual December stampede to get home for Christmas.
In the Champions restaurant adjacent to the lobby last Wednesday night, a half-dozen Phillies baseball people sat at a table. The group was anchored by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and senior adviser Pat Gillick. The mood appeared to be celebratory, somewhat jarring considering that the team had done nothing but sign free agent pinch-hitter Ross Gload, a deal that has yet to be officially announced.
Those cat-that-ate-the-canary looks may have been explained yesterday with a flurry of Internet reports that the Phillies are on the verge of acquiring dominant righthander Roy Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays in a three-cornered deal involving the Seattle Mariners.
With that, a couple other stray items for the winter meetings may have come into focus.
Amaro's opaque nondenials when the subject of the possibility of Halladay wearing red pinstripes next year was raised, for example. Or the fact that Cliff Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, apparently parachuted into Middle America last week at the request of the Phillies for a powwow. Or that there were rumblings the Phillies might be shopping Joe Blanton for financial reasons.
A Toronto source said the Blue Jays will end up with three prospects and contribute $6 million toward Halladay's $15.75 million salary next season. He didn't rule out that untouchable Phillies minor leaguer Kyle Drabek could be one of them. Including Drabek, however, seems unlikely.
Lee could be headed for the Mariners as part of the complicated transaction in which the Blue Jays receive prospects from both teams, although there was another permutation that suggested Blanton (along with lefthander J.A. Happ and prime prospect Domonic Brown) could also be in play. The latter version also appears unlikely, since the Phillies would be giving up two starters to get one and also including their top minor league position player.
Toronto doesn't appear to be in a position to extract that sort of price since the Blue Jays have to trade Halladay before the start of the season. Otherwise, according to his agent, he'll decline to waive his no-trade clause and walk away as a free agent at the end of the 2010 season.
And the list of teams the dominant staff ace (148-76 lifetime with a 3.43 earned run average) is willing to go to is apparently short.
The final details to be worked out are an extension for Halladay - one rumor pegged it at $70 million for 3 years - and for the 32-year-old to pass a physical. And there's always the chance that a blockbuster this big can come apart until the final details are agreed on.
Still, every indication last night was that this deal would come together.
The Associated Press reported that the commissioner's office granted a 72-hour window on Sunday for the Phillies and Blue Jays to complete the trade.
Multiple sources said Halladay took a physical yesterday; that he and his agent both were in Philadelphia yesterday.
While acquiring Halladay would clearly be a coup, giving up Lee would erase much of the gain for a team that has been to the World Series the last two seasons even though it would help balance out a rotation that is heavily lefthanded at the moment.
The Phillies were widely rumored to be the front-runners to acquire him before the trading deadline last winter, but balked at giving up Brown and/or righthander Drabek.
That's when they turned to Lee, sending righthander Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson, infielder Jason Donald and righthander Jason Knapp to the Indians for the 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner. The Phillies also got Ben Francisco in the deal.
Lee did everything the Phils could have hoped. He went 7-4, 3.39 in 12 regular-season starts and 4-0, 1.56 during the postseason.
Halladay, who appeared visibly unsettled when he made his last start before the deadline, the day the news broke that the Phillies were getting Lee, went 6-7 despite a 3.03 ERA from that point on.
The dream scenario for Phillies fans, still stung by losing to the Yankees in the World Series, would have been to pair Lee and Halladay at the top of the rotation with Cole Hamels the No. 3 starter, Blanton No. 4 and Happ No. 5.
Amaro, however, has made it clear that he's operating under tight budget strictures this winter and that the payroll for next season will probably have to be in the $140 million range. While getting Halladay will inevitably stretch that to some extent, it may be impossible to stay close to that guideline while keeping both Lee ($9 million) and Blanton (expected to get about $7 million in arbitration).
Both Lee and Blanton can be free agents at the end of the season, which is one advantage to trading for Halladay assuming an extension can be agreed on. There were reports that Braunecker told the Phillies that Lee was committed to testing the market at the end of the season.
One report suggested the Phillies might get a reliever from Seattle as part of the deal. A name that surfaced was hard-throwing righthander Phillippe Aumont, Seattle's No. 1 draft choice in 2007. Another possibility would be 26-year-old righthander Mark Lowe.
Halladay is a six-time All-Star who won the AL Cy Young in 2003. He won 17 games for the Blue Jays last year with a 2.79 ERA and led the majors with four shutouts and nine complete games.
Wanting to play for a team with a chance to advance to win a world championship, he forced the Blue Jays' hand by making it known he wouldn't negotiate once the season started. New general manager Alex Anthopoulos' hands were further tied by the fact that Halladay preferred to go to a team that trained near his Tampa-area home.
The Phillies were well-positioned to take advantage of his wish list and, barring a last-minute snag, have taken advantage of that to snatch one of the best pitchers in baseball. What remains to be seen is how much of a net gain they've achieved if they end up trading Lee to get him.