DALLAS - The cards have been shuffled and cut for a while, and now it is time for them to start being played.
We have seen Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. bluff before at baseball's winter meetings - no chance on Roy Halladay, no way on Cliff Lee - only to land the grand prizes on the trade and free-agent markets.
This time, things do seem different as the meetings swing into full action Monday at the Anatole Hilton.
Start with the fact that two position players, two of the game's premier hitters, represent the elite remaining in free agency.
There is no way that either St. Louis' Albert Pujols or Milwaukee's Prince Fielder will end up in a Phillies uniform. Not only do they cost too much, they also each play a position in which the Phillies already have $125 million invested. Not even the most creative general manager could find a way to wedge Pujols, Fielder and Ryan Howard into the Phillies' first-base dynamic.
Even though Pujols and Fielder will not be playing regularly in a ballpark near you next season, it should be fascinating to see where each player lands and how many millions each man receives.
For example, should the World Series champion Cardinals be unable to retain Pujols, it will change the landscape of the entire National League. And even if the Cardinals can keep Pujols, a possible $200 million deal would have an impact on them financially for years to come.
The Fielder situation is equally interesting. Supposedly, Theo Epstein, the new GM of the championship-starved Chicago Cubs, is looking to make a big splash by signing either the Brewers slugger or Pujols. Either move would shake the balance of power of the league in general and the NL Central in particular.
Things are equally intriguing within the Phillies' division, where the Miami (née Florida) Marlins and Washington Nationals also appear to be bidding for the game's biggest prizes.
The Marlins are making a big splash as they move into a new baseball-only stadium with their new manager, Ozzie Guillen. They've already paid big bucks to sign former Mets shortstop Jose Reyes - a six-year, $106 million deal, according to several reports Sunday night - and closer Heath Bell. Reyes was the third elite position player available in free agency.
There had been reports that the Marlins were also trying to persuade Pujols to leave St. Louis and move to Miami.
The Nationals were willing to spend $126 million for Jayson Werth a year ago and now they have their sights set on Fielder and Chicago White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle, one of the few quality rotation arms on the market. The best available starter is Texas' C.J. Wilson, and he also has been linked to the Nats.
Reyes was the one elite position player linked to the Phillies, and that's because their own shortstop is testing the free-agent waters.
But it seems as though retaining Jimmy Rollins is the top priority and that the team has already made its premier addition with the signing of closer Jonathan Papelbon. The Phillies also agreed to terms with Laynce Nix on a two-year deal, and he will provide left-handed power off the bench while probably also getting an occasional start in left field.
The big question that looms with Rollins is whether he will get the five years he was seeking, or if he must settle for something less. Amaro said Rollins' recent rash of injuries does enter the team's thinking in negotiations with the shortstop.
"We are cognizant of them," Amaro said. "It's of some concern. But we know how hard it is to go out there and play every day for 162 games. It doesn't happen very often. We were spoiled with that for a long time by Jimmy. He was playing 162 or close to it for five or six years."
The GM admitted that the lineup would look quite different without Rollins, but Amaro would be comfortable with his lineup should the shortstop re-sign with the team. Amaro has backed off the comments he made immediately after the season that the approach of his hitters needed to change.
"I'm not a big stats guy, but I went back and took a look at our production we had after July 1, and it was very good," Amaro said. "It wasn't very good during the playoffs, and I didn't like the way we approached our at-bats in that short series, but we were pretty damn productive once we had our guys on the field, and I think we have an opportunity to be a good, solid offense going into the season."
The other things worth watching are the landing spots for Phillies free agents Ryan Madson and Roy Oswalt. It has been quiet on both those fronts recently. Oswalt might have to wait for Buehrle and Wilson to sign before he gets a new deal.