It happens every winter: baseball's balance and balance books completely change at the December meetings.

In just a few days, the National League West went on a rampage, the St. Louis Cardinals got raided and the Pittsburgh Pirates began to unravel.Sure, the numbers were higher than usual - does anyone really believe Franklin Stubbs is worth $2 million a year? In a year when salaries increased $100,000 per player, more than $100 million was spent on free agents in less than a week.

But then again, the names and surprises were pretty big, too. Could anyone believe it when Joe Carter, Tony Fernandez, Fred McGriff and Roberto Alomar were traded all at once?

Tom Lasorda and Frank Robinson happened to be standing in the back of the conference room where Toronto and San Diego announced the deal. Robinson gasped, Lasorda applauded.

"As a fan, we all get tired of hearing how someone signed this guy and rumors about someone signing someone else," new Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine said. "So we thought we'd give you an old-fashioned baseball blockbuster trade."

Every NL West team except Houston helped itself this week. World Series champion Cincinnati kept Bill Doran and San Francisco signed Willie McGee and Dave Righetti.

"I got a note from (Giants general manager) Al Rosen after the season congratuating us," Reds manager Lou Piniella said. "He also said he was going to come hard after us, and boy, they've already started."

Los Angeles added Kevin Gross to go along with Darryl Strawberry and Atlanta acquired Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream.

"Obviously, teams in our division have taken great strides," McIlvaine said. "Now, we feel we have."

The Cardinals and Pirates, meanwhile, went the other way. Free agents Vince Coleman and Pendleton left St. Louis, as expected. Pittsburgh has already lost Bream and R.J. Reynolds and stands to lose Wally Backman and Ted Power, though they were able to re-sign free agent Zane Smith.

"It's a shame to see it happen in just a matter of days," Pirates manager Jim Leyland said. "We'd come so far since 1986."

Other trends also developed. With more players making more and more money, a lot of them are opting to go home.

McGee, born and raised in the Bay area, went to San Francisco. Righetti, who grew up in San Jose and rooted for the Giants, left his loyalty in New York and moved cross-country.

Doran, a Cincinnati native, spurned the Dodgers and stayed with the Reds. Last month, Strawberry did the same when he signed with Los Angeles.

Another thing to look at these days: Turning and returning Japanese.

It used to be that only over-the-hill players went from the big leagues, and few ever came back. Now, Japanese teams are getting better players, and more major leaguers are returning from overseas.

Phil Bradley, who played for the Chicago White Sox last season and then filed for free agency, was close this week to a deal with the Tokyo Giants. Ray Young, who went 15-5 for Oakland's Triple-A team, signed with the Seibu Lions.

"The strength of the yen is making Japan a more attractive option," Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson said. "I wouldn't say they're in full competition for our players. But it has changed in the last five years. We're aware that they might be getting a player who is on his way up, rather than on his way down."

That's how the Japanese teams want it.

"The easy way would be to invest in big-name veterans," said Shin Kuzutani, Seibu's head of foreign procurement. "But we want to be successful now, and in the future. Younger players are the way."

Several Japanese teams sent representatives to the meetings to look for players. Tony Bernazard, who played last season in Japan, also was at the meetings, and wound up with a $525,000 contract from Detroit.

The Tigers did OK with last year's Japanese import - Cecil Fielder. Detroit this week added former Japanese pitcher Bill Gullickson, while Floyd Bannister is coming back.

"The fear that Japan is a graveyard where old players go to die is gone," said LeRon Lee, who played in the majors and Japan and now works as a liaison.

What is gone - for now - is the talk that the winter meetings have become a dinosaur, a gathering that has outlived its usefulness. Seven trades, one more than last year, for 18 players and 19 free-agent signings showed that this is a good time and place to do business.