The heat index surrounding the Ken Griffey Jr. trade talks--which has ranged from blistering-hot when the Seattle Mariners first announced he was on the trading block, to considerably cooler when it appeared nobody was prepared to meet the Mariners' steep asking price--is rising again, just in time for baseball's annual winter meetings, which begin Friday in Anaheim, Calif.

Griffey, considered by many the premier player in the game, will be the number one topic of conversation, just as he was at last month's general manager's meetings.

Although little has changed since Griffey spurned the Mariners' last-ditch, $135 million contract offer and asked for a trade, the developments of the last month have produced a much clearer picture of where Griffey, who will be a free agent after the 2000 season, may end up.

The Cincinnati Reds, who appeared to have withdrawn from the running just this week, are back in and are again the front-runners to bring Junior back to his home town, where his father was a star player in the 1970s and is currently the bench coach.

"They've anted up, so they're going to play again, they say," Mariners GM Pat Gillick told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the Reds on Wednesday. "They withdrew, but they've re-entered their horse."

A major hurdle in the Griffey-to-Cincinnati talks was cleared Tuesday when the Mariners signed free agent first baseman John Olerud from the New York Mets. That, apparently, has removed Reds prized first baseman Sean Casey off the Mariners' wish-list, a roadblock in previous talks. A package of infielder Pokey Reese and starting pitchers Scott Williamson and Brett Tomko--reportedly the Mariners' latest demand--would get the deal done, but the Reds so far have not been willing to part with Reese.

The Mets, who have the resources to join the race and, now that Olerud is gone, a gaping left-handed hole in their lineup, are also expected to pursue Griffey, but have not initiated talks. Also keep an eye on the Cleveland Indians, who need a premium center fielder now that Kenny Lofton is injured.

There will be no superstar free agent signing during this year's meetings, as there was a year ago, when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Kevin Brown to a record $105 million contract. However, the constant demand for pitching is expected to make rich men out of some starting pitchers, including Chuck Finley, Aaron Sele, Kenny Rogers, Omar Olivares, Andy Benes, Steve Trachsel and Darren Oliver. All are seeking multiyear deals for $20 million or more.

The Baltimore Orioles, a perennial power player in free agency, have been eerily quiet this winter. Their biggest impact so far has been signing right-handed setup man Mike Trombley away from the Minnesota Twins, where he was the primary closer.

Today, as expected, the Orioles signed designated hitter Harold Baines to a one-year contract for $2 million, with another $650,000 in incentives based on plate appearances. For Baines, 40, it will be his third stint with the Orioles. Most recently, he hit .322 with 24 homers and 81 RBI in 107 games last season, before being traded to Cleveland on Aug. 27 for two minor league pitchers.

The Orioles are also in the market for a starting pitcher and a backup catcher. And while they continue to hammer out a deal with first baseman-outfielder Jeff Conine, talks with free agent Arthur Rhodes, who is seeking a four-year deal, have slowed in recent days, with the Mariners in hot pursuit.

Additionally, the Orioles are believed to be pursuing a trade that would send 42-year-old Jesse Orosco to the New York Mets, a baseball source said.