“Almost anybody can roll into Las Vegas, set up a display booth and start selling wares at wholesale prices,” writes the Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant.  Amongst the trade fair vendors at next week’s Winter Meetings, Grant hones in on Texas GM Jon Daniels, and the probability of the Rangers dumping Gerald Laird, Hank Blalock and a pair of underachieving veteran pitchers.

Seems odd that a club desperate for quality starting pitching might be willing to deal its only veterans, but Kevin Millwood is due $11 million in 2009 and Vicente Padilla (above) $12 million. Both have been disappointments for the Rangers, but both enter “contract” years and have been motivated in past contract years.

Millwood, who has already lost close to 15 pounds this winter, won the AL’s ERA title in 2005, when he was on the cusp of free agency. Padilla had a career-high 15 wins and pitched 200 innings in 2006, when he was about to become a free agent.

“I think more clubs are thinking trade first, rather than pursuing free agents,” Daniels said. “I’m not sure how much of it is because of the economy, but I think each club has its own parameters.”

Having inexplicably held on to A.J. Burnett past last season’s trade and waiver deadlines, the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves “approaching this annual horsehide flesh market of trades and free agency like eunuchs at a bordello.” writes the Star’s Richard Griffin.

The uncertainty of A.J. Burnett’s contract situation, will he stay or will he go “ they offered him arbitration to ensure draft-pick compensation “ has tied their hands for the moment. As soon as this afternoon, the deadline day for accepting arbitration, when A.J. tells them to take a hike, removing his old team from the bidding, at least the Jays will know where they stand with their payroll going forward.

Old-school trading would be easier to get value-for-value, but once again, free agency takes centre stage with uber-agent Scott Boras the most important figure in town. If he comes away from Vegas with all his top free agents under contract, his huge Vegas heist will make Ocean’s Eleven look like a mugging. He’s got CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Manny Ramirez, Oliver Perez, Pudge Rodriguez and Jason Varitek, among others.

There were 171 free agents on the market after all was said and done. As of yesterday, just 11 of them had signed contracts. Canadian right-hander Ryan Dempster was the only free agent to sign a deal longer than two years and the total number of seasons guaranteed among the 11 signees was just 17. Recession?

Is that a sign of things to come with the big boys? No, it’s a sign that free agency is becoming three-tiered and no longer will the salary base of the third-level free agents be dragged upwards by what the elite pull in. It will become more like Hollywood, with stars being paid like stars, while the best supporting actors, well known and talented, will be compensated but the “extras,” the majority, will be lucky to have a job.