Cliff Lee to Phils; is Nationals’ best move to wait for pitching?

The news broke late last night that Cliff Lee was headed back to Philadelphia, having signed a five-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies, and the tremors of that decision were still reverberating around the baseball world this morning.

Lee, who was thought by many baseball people to be after the biggest contract he could get, left money on the table to return to the Phillies. The Yankees, used to getting whoever they wanted in free agency, came up empty-handed on their biggest offseason pursuit and still need pitching to keep up with the Red Sox. And the market for the other available pitchers, in which the Nationals have already been wading for weeks, just got a lot more competitive.

The Yankees and Rangers will now join a half-dozen other teams in pursuit of starting pitching, chasing the same handful of second-tier options that figure to get over-inflated contracts. The best of those options is Kansas City’s Zack Greinke, whom the Royals are shopping this offseason. The Nationals are pursuing Greinke, like several other teams, but they’d almost certainly have to give up shortstop Ian Desmond or pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, two players they see as keys to their future and would hate to relinquish. Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza could also be moved this winter, but baseball sources have said the Rays’ price is high, and questioned whether the Nationals’ best trading chip - middle infielders - would be enough to close a deal.

Carl Pavano, the best pitcher left on the free agent market, can now move forward with his free agency discussions knowing Lee got $24 million a season. The Nationals have met with Lee’s agent, Tom O’Connell, but seem reluctant to give the 35-year-old Pavano the three-year deal he seeks.

What’s clear, at this point, is this: The Nationals will have to overpay to get a pitcher yet this offseason, and with the Phillies now in position of the game’s best rotation, not to mention one of the National League’s better lineups, it might be foolish for Washington to overspend for 2011. Stephen Strasburg will be back by 2012, and Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Lee will turn 35, 35 and 34 that season, respectively. The Phillies have an option on Oswalt for 2012 they might not exercise if the right-hander slips this year, and they could see a number of their best hitters leave in free agency.

And for the Nationals, there could be better free agent options available before 2012. CC Sabathia can opt out of his contract in New York, and the Cardinals have team options on Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez, Texas’ C.J. Wilson, the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle and Florida’s Javier Vazquez could also be available. It’s a long shot that Sabathia or Wainwright could hit the market, but even if they don’t, there are some other options available.

So, at this point, with the Phillies looking tougher than ever and the remaining options getting costlier by the day, the best strategy for the Nationals might be to let Strasburg get healthy, let the Phillies get a year older and try again to add a pricey front-line starter next year. There are hands to play and hands to fold, and with what’s left on this year’s pitching market, the Nationals might be best served by pursuing cheaper options or walking away altogether.