Could the Nationals land Cliff Lee?

Ever since Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said last month that the team’s top offseason priority was an No. 1 starter, sounding bold tones about the Nationals’ ability to acquire an ace, there’s been a mix of curiosity and anxiousness among fans about who the team could actually land. There’s no doubt Rangers starter Cliff Lee, due to be a free agent at the end of the season, is at the top of the list for most teams this offseason - and the left-hander is proving for the second straight postseason just how special he is. But could the Nationals actually make a run at him?

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Industry sources believe they have a chance. Several baseball officials believe the 32-year-old left-hander is the team’s big target this winter, and expect they could make the kind of blockbuster offer to Lee to get the job done. The buzz around baseball is that Lee will “follow the money” this winter and pitch for the highest bidder. The questions, though, will be whether Lee sticks to that if the best offer is in Washington - and whether the Nationals are comfortable tying up a large chunk of their payroll to get Lee, especially when younger pitchers like Kansas City’s Zack Greinke and Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza could be available via trade this winter.

He could command a deal in the neighborhood of $125 million for five years, and while baseball sources believe the Nationals are willing to spend that kind of money, they’ll probably also have to pay a premium to account for the fact that a) Lee has no real connection to the Washington market and b) the team hasn’t been competitive. The Rangers are expected to make a strong push to resign Lee, and play just five hours from Lee’s Little Rock, Ark., home.

And of course, the Yankees will likely make a play for Lee as well. They believed they had a deal done for the former Cy Young winner in July, and could throw big money at him this winter, as well. Lee has spoken fondly of New York when he’s pitched there, taking the subway to Yankee Stadium before his World Series Game 1 over the Yankees last October. Yankees lefty CC Sabathia, Lee’s former teammate in Cleveland, has maintained a close friendship with Lee, and the prospect of reuniting with Sabathia in pinstripes could be enticing, as well.

The Nationals’ biggest bargaining chip, aside from the chance to pitch with Stephen Strasburg (assuming he returns healthy from Tommy John surgery), is cash. Lee might have to decide if that really is enough to bring him to Washington, and the Nationals will have to figure out whether it’s worth spending that much on one player.