There have been a flurry of reports on Cliff Lee, most of them conflicting -- the Nationals are in on him, they're out on him, they're in on him at a certain level, they can't afford to pursue him, etc. -- and that's likely to continue until, and probably after, executives leave the Dolphin Hotel at Walt Disney World tomorrow afternoon.
So by no means consider this the definitive take on where the Nationals stand on Lee, since the situation is fluid if nothing else. But I've talked to enough people both with the Nationals and around the game that I think I've been able to get a pretty good handle on their approach.
The first thing you need to know is this: The Nationals wade into the Lee waters with extreme caution. They're very leery of being used as leverage to drive up the price for some other team, as they feel they were in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes in 2008. That season, the Nationals offered Teixeira an eight-year, $180 million deal, only to see the Yankees swoop in at the last minute and pluck the first baseman, who admitted he'd decided weeks before that he wanted to play in New York and, according to a Nationals source, was so scarred from losing in Texas that he wasn't going to sign with a last-place team.
Things are much different with the Nationals now, though; instead of Jim Bowden calling the shots, they have Mike Rizzo, who's well-respected around baseball and prefers a much less public style of negotiating than Bowden did. Rizzo is highly secretive in negotiations, keeping such a tight rein on information that many people in his front office don't know what the team is doing until right before it's about to happen. But he's also a confident lone wolf, unafraid to make bold moves when he feels the time is right.
We saw that on Sunday, when the Nationals shocked the baseball world by giving Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million deal. There had been little buzz about the Werth-to-the-Nationals idea - numerous team officials and industry sources had no idea it was coming, even though the sides started feeling each other out weeks before. Rizzo got his man, at a price many felt was too high but positioned the Nationals as big players in this market.
Back to Lee: Baseball people at these Winter Meetings who were confounded by the Werth deal are wondering if the Nationals could possibly shell out another nine-figure deal after signing Werth. Moreover, they're wondering why the team has decided to go on the attack now, a year after winning 69 games and a year before Stephen Strasburg will return to full health. But numerous sources have said all offseason that the Nationals, well aware of their slide in the public eye and anxious to reverse perceptions about themselves, were eager to make a splash. And two sources said on Wednesday morning that the Lerner family is whole-heartedly behind the idea of spending more money to do it.
â€¨The conflicting reports, then, arrive in a market where Cliff Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, seeks to raise the price for his client while the teams involved try to keep it from spiraling away. The Nationals certainly have the money to land Lee - and with more than $20 million coming off the payroll, they could get him for the price of what they've lost this year. I believe they're very much in on Lee, well aware of what a game-changer the addition would be but also aware of their current status in the market. It's why they're operating behind closed doors, trying to disguise their scent and throw other teams off the trail. The Nationals may be big spenders, but signing with them still requires a leap of faith on Lee's part. That reality, coupled with the way Rizzo likes to do business, is why they're proceeding quietly.
Could they decide the market has turned away from them and bail on Lee? Absolutely. If the Nationals sense they're becoming a pawn, I think they'll move on to other options. But otherwise, I believe they'll make a confident, if cautious, push for the left-hander and try to shock the baseball world again.