Washington Nationals May Be a Player in Bid to Sign Baseball Free Agent Mark Teixeira

Mark Teixeira's price tag could approach $200 million as baseball's winter meetings start heating up in Las Vegas.
Mark Teixeira's price tag could approach $200 million as baseball's winter meetings start heating up in Las Vegas. (By Jeff Gross -- Getty Images)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

LAS VEGAS, Dec. 7 -- Until now, the Washington Nationals have lurked at the most distant edges of Mark Teixeira's solar system, eclipsed by bigger, brighter planets and just visible enough to make observers question whether they are a real planet or just a glorified piece of space rock.

But with baseball's winter meetings set to begin Monday at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, the marketplace for Teixeira, a switch-hitting first baseman whose ultimate price tag could approach $200 million, is expected to come quickly into view, and so should the answer to the question about the Nationals' legitimacy as a suitor.

Conventional wisdom would paint the Nationals as extreme, even delusional, underdogs to land the most coveted prize of this free agent market. They are coming off a 102-loss season, will be competing against the deep-pocketed likes of the Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox, and have a history of -- shall we say -- thriftiness that seems incongruous with this particular endeavor.

The unknown factor, though, is the degree of the Nationals' urgency to reclaim a fan base turned off by the losing and the seeming lack of organizational direction. In other words: How badly do the Nationals want Teixeira?

One clue came with the recent revelation that Nationals owner Ted Lerner already has met with Teixeira's agent, Scott Boras, which is in keeping with Boras's preferred method of negotiation; he typically bypasses the general manager and goes straight to the man who controls the money. Boras is believed to be seeking a 10-year deal for Teixeira, and it is only logical that the Nationals would want to gauge Teixeira's own interest in them before diving headlong into the bidding.

Still, the question remains: Can an owner whose biggest player expenditure to this point was the $17.5 million contract given to Austin Kearns last year really be expected to spend perhaps 10 times that much on one player? And is it even wise to do so, especially in this economic climate?

Despite dire predictions from observers inside and outside the game regarding the effects of the national recession upon baseball's free agent market, elite players -- such as Teixeira and star lefty CC Sabathia -- appear set to cash in as if nothing has changed. Sabathia already has on the table a reported six-year $140 million offer from the New York Yankees and may jump on it this week, assuming he fails to coax a team from his native California to join the mix.

The Yankees are aiming to sign two front-line starters from a group that, besides Sabathia, includes right-handers A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe and Ben Sheets -- although the Atlanta Braves (Burnett) and Red Sox (Lowe) are moving aggressively to limit those options.

The Baltimore Orioles fancy themselves as players in both the Teixeira and Burnett sweepstakes -- Teixeira grew up in Severna Park, while Burnett resides in Monkton -- but, like the Nationals, they would have to find a way to persuade these highly coveted players to spurn the bevy of perennial contenders and sign instead with a rebuilding outfit.

Elsewhere, the New York Mets essentially have their pick of a closer market headed by Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes -- the pitchers' paydays likely to be driven down more so by the laws of supply and demand than by the recession -- while the Angels will be hot on Teixeira's trail, but are prepared to go in other directions if he signs elsewhere.

As for the Nationals, they are quick to point out they are not deviating from their plan to rebuild through youth -- via drafts, player development and trades, such as the one that brought them lefty Scott Olsen and outfielder Josh Willingham from Florida last month -- while largely staying away from free agency until the team is closer to contending.

Despite frequent industry rumors tying them to left fielder Adam Dunn or even Manny Ramírez, the Nationals appear singularly focused on Teixeira, whom they view as a once-in-a-generation exception to their anti-free-agent stance -- a local product who is young (28), exceptionally talented both offensively and defensively, and blessed with good looks and a clean-cut image.

In addition to a power-hitting first baseman, the Nationals need pitching -- lots of it, both starters and relievers -- but are not expected to join the bidding for premium arms such as Sabathia, Burnett and Lowe.

Essentially barred from the free agent market by his bosses' disinclination to spend, Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden has been one of the most aggressive, creative pursuers of trades among all his peers.

A year ago at the winter meetings, he stunned the industry by pulling off a deal for troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes, and his trade last month with the Florida Marlins netted him both a front-end starting pitcher (Olsen) and a potential middle-of-the-order bat (Willingham) at minimal cost.

By now, Bowden undoubtedly has a solid idea of the trade market for first basemen. And perhaps by the end of the week, with some degree of clarity to the Teixeira situation, he should know whether such a trade is necessary.

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