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Washington Nationals: Winter Meetings End With Nats In Mix For Cliff Lee, But Really?

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The Washington Nationals made their pitch for Cliff Lee, who reportedly decide on a home for the next seven years this weekend.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The Washington Nationals made their pitch for Cliff Lee, who reportedly decide on a home for the next seven years this weekend. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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The top free agent pitcher on the market, 32-year-old left-hander Cliff Lee, is expected to make a decision on a home for the next six or seven years, "before the end of the weekend," according to FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal who wrote last night in an article entitled, "Source: Yanks make formal offer to Lee", that the New York Yankees, the front-runner for any free agent they're after, are believed to have offered the one-time Montreal Expos' Draft pick a 6-year deal worth, "more than $137.5 million but less than $150 million." (Update: Reports this morning say the Yanks have moved to 7-years.) The Texas Rangers are still in the mix though less open about how far they're willing to go to keep the starter who led them to the 2010 World Series after they acquired Lee last July from Seattle for four prospects. Mr. Rosenthal puts two more teams in the hunt for Lee. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Washington Nationals.

Are the Nationals one of the two "mystery" teams who will reportedly be willing to go to seven years for Lee, outbidding the Yankees, Angels and Rangers and forcing Cliff Lee to make the Teixeira-esque choice of cash over contention? In another article early today entitled, "Do we have our mystery team?", written early Thursday after free agent outfielder Carl Crawford signed a ridiculous, irresponsible, 7-year/$142M dollar deal with Boston, the FOXSports.com writer Mr. Rosenthal quoted anonymous "officials with another club" who speculated that one of the two "mystery" teams raising the stakes of the bidding on Lee was in fact the same Red Sox who signed Crawford, "Because with such an offer, they would empower Lee’s agents to say they had a seven-year bid, potentially forcing the Yankees to increase their six-year proposal."

Reports earlier this week had the Washington Nationals willing to go BIG in their attempts to lure Lee to the nation's capital, though in keeping with D.C. GM Mike Rizzo's rep for running a leak-proof front office, the details of the Nationals' offer have never emerged. Their pursuit of Lee and a few other pitchers is public knowledge however and the Nats' general manager spoke openly yesterday in a press conference from Florida, discussing the team's interest in Lee, Chien-Ming Wang (who had his rehab financed by Washington to the tune of $2M dollars last year), Brandon Webb (recovering from shoulder surger like Wang) and some of the pitchers available via trade this winter. Mr. Rizzo was willing to talk about the cost of acquiring a front-end starter via trade yesterday (as NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman reported in a transcript of the press conference entitled, "Rizzo on 1B, Lee, Wang, Webb"):

"'The good, controllable young starting pitchers, they're tough to trade for. They cost a lot in dollars and in players. I don't think I would describe it as tougher. I always knew it would be difficult to get.'"

The two pitchers most-often mentioned in connection to the Nats, the Royals' Zack Grienke and the Rays' Matt Garza, were still available as the third day of Winter Meetings came to a close. So is Carl Pavano. The Nationals have spoken openly about pursuing Pavano, though the market for the 3r-year-old free agent starter shifted some yesterday when rumors of a good meeting with the Milwaukee Brewers emerged. ESPNChicago.com's Bruce Levine reported last night in an article entitled, "Sources: Cubs targeting Matt Garza", that ESPNChicago had been told by an anonymous source, "that Milwaukee is talking to Carl Pavano about a three-year contract," which is longer than the Nats are reportedly willing to go, and with the Yankees the front-runner for Lee in most reports, the Brewers, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers have remained suitors for both the young starters who are thought to be available via trade. 

The Cubs, who signed free agent first baseman Carlos Pena Wednesday after the 32-year-old power-hitting defensive 1B had been discussed as an Adam Dunn replacement in D.C. for months, then moved on to talks with Tampa Bay according to Mr. Levine, who wrote that the "multiple sources" told him Rays and Cubs, "met for the second time during the Winter Meetings on Wednesday night to discuss the parameters of a trade," for Garza that would have "a number of the Cubs' top prospects" going to Tampa in return.

New York Post writer Joel Sherman wrote early this morning in an article entitled, "Girardi makes Bombers’ desperation obvious", that with Carl Crawford going to Boston, "we can now remove any doubt and describe the Yankees’ condition when it comes to obtaining Cliff Lee as 'desperate'," as they try to keep pace with their AL rivals in Beantown who've now added Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a lineup that was riddled with injuries last season but is healthy heading into year '11. The real pressure to add Lee, however, has more to do with the secondary market once Lee's destination is decided. If the left-hander was to return to Texas or (by the longest of shots as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo sees it) sign with Washington, there are only so many options for teams seeking pitching, as the Post's Mr. Sherman notes: 

"The price on Kansas City’s Zack Grienke is exorbitant, and the Yankees don’t believe the righty could handle New York. The Yankees have not even checked in on Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza. And frontline or near frontline types such as Felix Hernandez, Josh Johnson, John Danks and Francisco Liriano are not viewed as available."

The Jayson Werth signing was a complete surprise. The stated goal for the Washington Nationals entering the winter of 2010-11 was adding a top-of-the-rotation arm, though the Nats have acknowledged the difficulty of doing so all along. The Rule 5 Draft takes place today, then the Winter Meetings come to a close and everyone heads home having hopefully laid the groundwork for future deals. In the last few minutes reports have the New York Yankees joining the one remaining mystery team (if this one really exists) in offering seven-years to Cliff Lee. Are the Nationals willing to go that far? Lee doesn't put them in playoff contention, but he would form one impressive rotation along with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann for the 2012 season and beyond. Do the Nationals have any business getting involved in the Lee sweepstakes? It's questionable, but they're there. 

Update: According to Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore (@adamkilgoreWP): "With Yanks offering 7 years to Lee per @SI_JonHeyman, turn out the lights for the #Nats. A source said they'd give 7 'if hell freezes over.'"