Bill Ladson of MLB.com reported yesterday that the Washington Nationals will have an audience with prized free-agent starting pitcher Cliff Lee this offseason as he will be courted by most of the top teams in baseball:
"General manager Mike Rizzo made it known in September that getting an ace pitcher is the top priority for the Nationals. Rangers left-hander Cliff Lee is the only top-line pitcher on the free-agent market this offseason...As of 12:01 a.m. ET on Sunday, Lee is now able to negotiate with the other 29 clubs...According to a baseball source familiar with Lee and the Nationals, the left-hander will listen to what Washington has to say. The person said the Nationals are a team that Lee has to learn more about."
While Lee's Cinderella October came to an end with a loss to the Giants in game five of the World Series, most, if not all of the top teams in baseball remain determined to sign Lee. The 31-year-old left hander is coming off a season where he helped lead the Texas Rangers to the franchise's first World Series Appearance after posting a 12-9 record with a 3.18 ERA in 28 starts. The former Cy Young Award winner showed the best control of his career in 2010, walking only 18 all season after striking out a career high 185 batters on the year.
The Nationals have made it no secret that they are looking to add a top of the line starter to bolster their rotation going into 2011, especially with the noticeable absence of Stephen Strasburg. Lee would be the obvious choice for Mike Rizzo to try to fill that void, he's the top pitcher available, if not the most valuable pitcher in baseball period. At 31, he still likely has three to four great years ahead of him, which fits into the Nationals plans to compete by 2012.
For Washingtonians this may sound like a match made in heaven, but what incentive does Lee have to come to Washington over teams like the Yankees or Rangers? It's possible the Nationals could out-bid Texas, but any offer that the Nationals make to Lee the Yankees will certainly match. What's worse, is that the Nationals can't offer what arguably may be the most important thing to Lee, a chance at redemption in the World Series.
So why would Lee even entertain the Nats offers? Could it be that the Lee camp might only be listening to the Nationals so they can leverage their high offer against other teams the ace might want to sign with? It's very possible, and it wouldn't be the first time we've seen it in Washington. When it was all said and done after the Mark Teixeira bidding war, many felt that the slugging first baseman only used the Nationals offers to get the Yankees to add more money to his contract. Sadly, there's no reason to think that Lee isn't doing the same thing.
But what are the Nationals to do, not go after Lee? At some point the Nationals will need to hope that the strong foundation of youth and deep pockets of the Lerners (supposed deep pockets I should say) will be enough to sign the big name free agent. They will never be able to do that without trying. The Nats will make a strong play at Lee, and while they may miss out, it will show the players around baseball that they do intend to be a player very soon.