Santa Claus' travel plans only seemed to find him going to big market cities for major league baseball. For the small market teams, it's another season of "bah, humbug."

The recently-completed major league meetings and free agent signing period only increased the wide gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots". While some of the smaller market teams got some stocking stuffers in the way of minor trades or secondary tier free agent signings, it was the big market teams that came away with the big presents for the holidays. Translated, it means the big market teams should be enjoying their gifts all summer long in 1999.

The biggest winners were in New York, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Teams in those cities all got better, stronger or in some cases, just held on to their own. Smaller markets like San Diego, Houston, Denver and Kansas City got left out in the cold.

This is nothing new for collectors who have known for some time to invest in the big city teams, regardless of how they fare on the field. But the disparity in spending should make it more obvious for those planning to continue to invest in baseball in 1999 that not only will the big markets provide more lucrative buys for collectors, it should translate into more victories as well.

Hard to believe the New York Yankees could get any stronger, but by not losing any significant pieces to their 1998 world championship puzzle they actually may have been the big winners of the early stages of the hot stove league.

They kept Bernie Williams for a pricely sum, didn't trade any of their starting staff including southpaw Andy Pettite who had been rumored going to several different teams. So what if they didn't have any big trades, why mess with a club that won a total of 125 regular and post-season games.

The Yankees' domination forced other American League clubs to make moves. The Baltimore Orioles, always a free spending bunch, came out okay. They lost Rafael Palmeiro, replacing him with former Mississippi State teammate Will Clark. They lost Roberto Alomar, replacing him with the less talented but less expensive Delino DeShields. They lost Eric Davis, but signed troubled outfielder Albert Belle. Critics have said these were all lateral moves but considering the Orioles went no where with last year's players a shakeup may be what they doctor ordered.

The Indians, trying to figure out a way to beat the Yankees, signed Alomar and tried to lure Roger Clemens away from Toronto which now appears to be a dead issue with the Cy Young Award winner likely staying north of the border. More importantly, they signed a couple of their own young players to long-term deals. If they had gotten Clemens, they would have been back in the hunt with the Yankees; now they must look elsewhere for a stopper, either within their own organization or in a spring training trade.

While not in the American League, the New York Mets were directly affected by the success of their crosstown rivals. The Yankees' success forced the Mets to re-sign Mike Piazza, obtain third baseman Robin Ventura, ink aging Rickey Henderson and re-obtaining Bobby Bonilla. The Mets haven't caught the Atlanta Braves, who also fared extremely well with the signing of Brian Jordan and the trade for Bret Boone, but they are much stronger than a year ago and may be in a position to compete for Big Apple fans and collectors' hearts in 1999.

The biggest winners were in the National League where the second-year Arizona Diamondbacks spent a lot of that money they got from sold out games at their new stadium. Putting together a rotation with Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, Armando Reynoso and Andy Benes (a holdover from 1998) puts them into immediate contention. Spending $119 million will do that.

The ripple effect in the National League West could be felt from the Arizona activity. Rupert Murdoch borrowed some million dollars from his Fox TV staple, the Simpsons, and hit a "homer:" by landing Kevin Brown for the sum of $105 million over seven years. The oft-criticized move by other teams does mean the Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball and by picking up centerfielder Devon White, they have solidified their defense.

Like the Mets-Yankees situation, the Angels also had to spend to keep up with the Dodgers. Obtaining Mo Vaughn was an excellent pickup for the Disney folks and should make Anaheim the team to beat in the AL West.

While LA and Arizona were busy, San Diego and Colorado were the big losers. The Padres, who won 100 games enroute to a trip to the World Series, had losses similar to the Florida Marlins one year ago. They lost Brown, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Joey Hamilton in the span of three weeks; Greg Vaughn reportedly is on the trading block. They won't lose 100 games like the Marlins did this year but they will struggle.

Colorado, like Arizona, sells out regularly but couldn't translate that into any serious activity in December. Coors Field and its reputation as a home run haven scared away any big name pitcher and new manager Jim Leyland is stuck with basically the same crew that struggled a year ago in a mediocre division. Now the NL West may be the league's best and the Rockies are in trouble.

Hanging sox is what fans in Chicago and Boston would like to do this holiday. Although they are in big markets, the White Sox and Red Sox were also big losers. The White Sox lost Belle and Ventura, replacing them with younger, cheaper players. The Red Sox lost the popular Vaughn and did nothing to replace him. Both Sox will be put out to dry in 1999.