By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008
If you thought the lowly Tampa Bay Rays vanquishing the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series last month was baseball's ultimate David-over-Goliath moment, imagine a scenario in which the Washington Nationals, losers of 102 games and immeasurable amounts of local goodwill and national reputation in 2008, went head-to-head against the Red Sox for the services of potentially the most expensive free agent in eight years -- and won.
A free agent market marked by a lack of depth but a galaxy's worth of star power at its elite level officially opens for business today. And no story line -- not the mercenary wanderings of outfielder Manny Ramírez, nor the potentially record-setting deal that pitcher CC Sabathia could get -- is more fascinating than the market set to develop around first baseman Mark Teixeira, a 28-year-old Severna Park native on the verge of making himself extremely rich.
While the Red Sox are itching to add a slugger, and the New York Yankees appear ready to exert their financial might to a degree not seen in at least several years -- they are expected to go hard after Sabathia plus at least one other elite pitcher, and (at least according to Hank Steinbrenner) perhaps Ramírez, too -- an equally intriguing pursuer exists at the opposite end of baseball's food chain.
Against all odds and logic, the Nationals envision themselves as serious players in the Teixeira sweepstakes, according to team and league sources, and are believed to be preparing an offer they feel will be competitive with the others Teixeira is likely to receive. In other words, it would almost certainly be north of $100 million, if not $150 million -- a remarkable leap for a franchise whose major free agent signing last winter (as it headed into a new stadium) was catcher Paul Lo Duca at $5 million for one year.
"The plan hasn't changed," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said of the team's general strategy for building a contender. "Building our franchise through scouting and player development, as well as trades for your players, is still our core strategy for how we're going to win. . . . But we would be foolish to ignore using any source to make ourselves better, including free agency.
"But that said, any free agent interest from us would have to fit the criteria of being a player in his 20s who could be part of our long-term solution for winning."
Bowden declined to discuss individual names, but clearly Teixeira would fit that description. Not only is he in his 20s (he turns 29 next April), but he also plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at a position (first base) that the Nationals have targeted as their No. 1 need. And on top of everything else, he is a clean-cut, ultra-professional, telegenic type with deep local ties -- in other words, someone who could join (or replace) Ryan Zimmerman as the face of the franchise for the next eight to 10 years.
Like Bowden, Nationals President Stan Kasten declined to address specifics of Washington's strategy -- including a question as to whether the team's budget would allow for the signing of a player like Teixeira, whose ultimate price tag could approach $200 million.
"We're always looking for opportunities, and I'm not going to prejudge any opportunity," Kasten said. "Yes, that might be free agency, but it might not be. I do expect us to explore everything. If there is something that makes sense for what our needs are, and that makes sense within the constructs of our economics, we might do that."
There is another downtrodden local franchise that also sees Teixeira as the answer to all its prayers -- the Baltimore Orioles. And owner Peter Angelos, unlike his Nationals counterpart, Theodore Lerner, has a history of moving aggressively when he wants something -- and by all accounts he wants Teixeira badly.
However, whether Teixeira, with the ability to sign a contract that could carry him into the autumn of his career, would choose a franchise that appears to be several years from contention is another matter -- particularly when perennial winners like the Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels are expected to be involved.
The Nationals have made it clear they are not going after every big-time free agent -- only, it seems, Teixeira, whom they view as a special case. They are not interested in Ramírez, 36, despite media reports that they plan to pursue him, and they are also unlikely to be factors in the pursuit of elite starting pitchers.
If the Nationals fail to land Teixeira, their fallback for filling their first base need could involve a trade, as the list of players believed to be available (including San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez, Milwaukee's Prince Fielder and Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox) is far more appealing that the second tier of free agents behind Teixeira (the best of whom are probably Eric Hinske and Kevin Millar).
The Yankees, meantime, are back in their old role of lording over the marketplace, and dictating its direction. Having been largely absent from the free agent frenzy the past two winters -- when their major signings were Andy Pettitte and LaTroy Hawkins, respectively -- the Yankees have the money (thanks to the expiration of some $80 million worth of 2008 payroll, plus the expected revenue boost from their new stadium set to debut in 2009) and the motivation (their first time missing the playoffs in 15 years) to dominate the market.
The Yankees' trade yesterday for veteran first baseman (and outfielder) Nick Swisher, a far cheaper option, likely removes them from the Teixeira market. But they will almost certainly drive the market for elite pitching -- which, beyond Sabathia, also includes A.J. Burnett, Ben Sheets and Derek Lowe -- as General Manager Brian Cashman acknowledged yesterday that he hopes to emerge from this offseason with two top starters.
It is not unreasonable to expect the Yankees to sign both Sabathia and (pick one) Burnett/Sheets/Lowe at a combined cost of more than $200 million. Cashman, though, disputes the notion of a philosophical change in the Bronx, away from the player-development model he has tried to instill.
"That hasn't changed. Ultimately, we're still in that mode," Cashman said. "But we're still going to be aggressive in the free agent market -- we're just a little more disciplined about it."
And precisely because of the Yankees' discipline -- as evidenced by the way they filled their first base job -- the prized catch of the free agent market, a switch-hitting prodigy from the Maryland suburbs, will wind up somewhere other than the Bronx, perhaps even somewhere closer to home.