When the Nationals made headlines for tempting Mark Teixeira with a seven-year, $160 million contract in December 2008, the offer was a surprise on a number of fronts.
Nationals ownership had a reputation for being - what's a nice way to say this? - a tad frugal, and despite the fact that then-free agent Teixeira grew up about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the Nats were not viewed as a serious player for his services.
The weighty offer for the slugging first baseman was well-intentioned, but hardly a stealth move; then general manager Jim Bowden hoped that an assertive, preemptive strike might sway Teixeira. But Bowden might as well have been facing Nolan Ryan with a toothpick for a bat. Even if the Nationals had money to spend and a hole at first base, they weren't legitimate players for Teixeira.
All the Nationals accomplished with their bluster was to drive up the market for Teixeira, who never really seriously considered their offer before eventually inking an eight-year, $180 million deal with the New York Yankees.
Now, the Nats may find themselves in a similar situation - they've got a hole to fill and money to spend. Let's hope they've learned from their past mistakes by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, when free agents can negotiate with any team.
The period where teams can exclusively negotiate with their pending free agents is halfway over and already the Nationals are being talked about as a possible destination for free agent left-hander Cliff Lee, who was 12-9 with a 3.18 ERA in 28 starts for the Mariners and Rangers in 2010. Lee is the marquee name in a thin market this winter and is expected to seek a five-year contract for north of $100 million. There are whispers that the Nationals, considered sleepers among higher-profile teams with playoff pedigrees, are ready to make a big push for Lee.
While he enjoyed being the difference-maker who pushed the Rangers into the World Series for the first time in franchise history, Lee intends to test the market. Translation: Wins and losses don't seem to be as important to his bottom line as dollars and cents. Either that, or agent Derek Braunecker is planning on using the Nationals (and other teams with lesser records, honest intentions and deep pockets) as leverage to extract a more palatable deal from a contender.
Does Lee make sense for the Nats? Who wouldn't want a two-time All-Star who won the 2008 Cy Young Award while pitching for the Cleveland Indians? Lee's 102 career wins would make him the top-of-the-rotation starter that Washington craves - and doesn't have until Stephen Strasburg proves he's recovered from Tommy John surgery and can pitch without injury. Put Lee atop the starting five and everyone's better for his presence, from ageless Livan Hernandez to whoever Jim Riggleman settles on for the No. 5 starter. And signing with the Nationals would reunite Lee with his original organization, even if it wouldn't make amends for the lopsided June 2002 trade that sent Lee, second baseman Brandon Phillips, first baseman Lee Stevens and outfielder Grady Sizemore from Montreal to Cleveland for pitchers Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew. But Lee won't come cheaply and negotiations won't be quickly consummated.
With Strasburg sidelined for, at best, most of next year, and no telling when Hernandez's deal with the devil will come due, bagging Lee would both bolster the rotation and give the Nationals a marketable, high-profile player. If he goes that route, general manager Mike Rizzo just has to make sure there's enough offense to support the southpaw.
Even if Lee doesn't view the Nationals as a realistic suitor, there are other ways to fill a rotation hole. But Rizzo doesn't have unlimited depth from which to deal, and he certainly won't create one hole just to fill another. With a new extension giving him job security and a desire to further effect his imprint on the franchise, Rizzo is already at a crossroads of sorts. He must make sure any offer, however staggering it may be, doesn't establish a crafty agent's starting point to inflate the market past what the Nationals are willing - or able - to pay for a premier pitcher.