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Lee's move to Yanks only near certainty of uncertain winter ahead

It appears that the Yankees have some growing competition for the offseason's most-coveted prize, Cliff Lee. The Nationals are among the teams very interested in the 32-year-old left-hander, and word going around now is the Astros might be, too. The Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Phillies are among other teams believed to have already put in a phone call to Lee, who is said to have loved his time in Texas, too. Despite all the suitors, does anyone really see any team but the Yankees as the favorite to sign Lee?

Indeed, Yankees GM Brian Cashman flew to Arkansas on Tuesday night and is meeting with Lee on Wednesday. The visit is supposed to be simply a meet and greet, but an offer at that time is possible.

Still, says Lee agent Darek Braunecker, "It's too early to draw any conclusions. It makes no sense to rule anybody out at this point." And who's to argue with a man who got $82.5 million for the notoriously inconsistent A.J. Burnett? But ultimately, there should be a very limited number of teams that can seriously contend in this stratosphere.

Lee is said by sources to be looking to repeat his good friend CC Sabathia's $161 million, seven-year deal with the Yankees, numbers that could all but eliminate every team but the Yankees, who are very happy to have imported Sabathia at that price.

The Dodgers and Phillies look like particular long shots due to a mixed-up ownership situation (Dodgers) and a stance against going beyond three years for pitchers (Phillies). Other teams may make a bit more sense, but ultimately, it's pretty hard to imagine any of the serious suitors getting into it with the Yankees beyond the incumbent Rangers, who are led by the ultra-competitive Nolan Ryan.

Armed with a new $80-million-a-year TV deal (which is great but still a pittance compared to the Yankees' YES empire), no state income tax and new part-owner Ryan, the Rangers pose the greatest threat to a Yankees-Lee marriage. Though Lee was said by friends to not be celebrating his midseason trade to Texas (after an apparent deal to the Yankees fell through), the move worked out splendidly as Lee helped the Rangers knock out the Yankees en route to the World Series.

The Rangers, though, don't really have the money to compete with the Yankees. Further, the Yankees need Lee, and they haven't lost out on any of the free agents they truly felt they needed since the winter of 1992-93, when they finished second or worse for Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux, David Cone and many others. That was before the Yankees became the dynastic Yankees again, of course.

But the Yankees' desperation has to be clear by now. There are several reasons for this:

1. There is no good second choice. They know that Royals ace Zack Greinke won't accept a trade to New York (nor would they want to force the big city on him, anyway) and that the next-best free-agent pitchers are Jorge de la Rosa and Carl Pavano. While De La Rosa's a talented pitcher, he's nowhere near Lee's stratosphere (as for Pavano, there's no need to get into that for obvious reasons).

2. They can afford it. Yankee revenues are crazy high (though they aren't exactly known as teams don't reveal them); we do know that the franchise was estimated to be worth $1.6 billion by Forbes in April.

3. Javier Vazquez, who didn't work out again in New York, is gone. Burnett is a major question mark following his abysmal season. And Andy Pettitte remains uncertain to return (though the suspicion is that he might).

4. Lee kills the Yankees. The Yankees once signed Pavano, Tony Womack and others after they had a good moment or two against them. But Lee frightens them after having his way with them the past two postseasons.

Though a few New York's fans didn't necessarily help the Yankees' efforts with their loutish behavior around Lee's wife, Kristin, in the ALCS, a bad moment with a few Yankees fans is unlikely to persuade them to go elsewhere. "That story was blown out of proportion," Braunecker said. "It's not like she's hypersensitive. She's been with him in Philadelphia and all over, been with him from the get-go. It really was that one time, just a couple clowns ... probably intoxicated. I don't know if that will have any bearing on [the decision]."

Lee has said he has enjoyed his time in Texas, and there's no reason to doubt that. And he does seem to fit nicely into their clubhouse. But folks believe that while he enjoyed the proximity to Little Rock, Ark. (it's a 4½-hour car ride away), on some level it isn't always optimal to be so close to home.

1. Cliff Lee: Yankees.

2. Carl Crawford: Angels. Torii Hunter already has made his preference known. When the Angels have stepped out for free agents in the past, they have done so for outfielders -- Hunter ($90 million) and Gary Matthews Jr. ($50 million). The Red Sox have checked in on Crawford, but in the past haven't gone for very long deals. The Yankees are among the teams to call, with the Braves, Tigers, hometown Astros and others likely to show interest in one of baseball's speediest players and better competitors. The world champion Giants love him but have done better by drafting and developing. He's said by some to prefer left field, but others say that he hasn't ruled out center field altogether. He's believed to expect at least $100 million, but that should be the minimum. The guess here is that he could possibly try for eight or more years but may wind up receiving something on par with the $119 million contract of Carlos Beltran.

3. Jayson Werth: Red Sox. He's a few years older than Crawford, but he's a five-tool player with better OPS numbers and more power (29 homers per year over the past three years to 14 for Crawford). The Braves, Tigers and other Crawford players make sense. Werth is shooting to match Matt Holliday's $120 million deal, but his age (31) may prevent that -- though $90 million or more seems very possible.

4. Derek Jeter: Yankees. This may take a while. Jeter and agent Casey Close have had meetings in past few days with owner Hal Steinbrenner, team president Randy Levine and GM Brian Cashman. But it behooves both sides to work it out, and they will. The Yankees are likely hoping to limit the guaranteed money to three years, but Jeter might want to try to duplicate the Alex Rodriguez deal that allows him to play until he's 42. It's hard to put a price on Jeter's value, but both sides have to know that it's more for the Yankees than anyone else. The iconic Yankee should get 3,000 hits in June, with more milestones and honors to come.

5. Adrian Beltre: Angels. Boston wants him back, but word is that he had to be talked into joining the Red Sox last time. The Sox could also move Kevin Youkilis to third base and sign a first baseman. Beltre is an excellent two-way player who will have lots of takers, but who will come close to the $64 million, five-year haul that he got last time in Seattle? Texas is known to like him but has Michael Young at third. Pittsburgh also has checked in, and the Angels always have liked him, and may have a need considering how Brandon Wood didn't work out last year.

6. Mariano Rivera: Yankees. It's believed that he would like a two-year deal (which would also take him to 42). The Yankees might prefer to go the one-year route popularized by Andy Pettitte, but it's hard to imagine them doing anything to prevent Rivera's staying in pinstripes.

7. Victor Martinez: Tigers. The Red Sox wanted to keep him, but their two-year offer, believed to be for about $20 million, didn't come close to luring him back. His friend Sabathia (he's a friend to many, apparently) said he won't be back in Boston. The Orioles and Rockies also are known to be interested. The Tigers have $50 million coming off the books and V-Mart liked his time living in the Midwest when with the Indians.

8. Paul Konerko: White Sox. He's a favorite of all of the White Sox hierarchy and took less to stay there last time. The smart money says he does it again. They are also considering the possibility of adding some more pop to the lineup. In an interview on Jim Bowden's show on MLB Network Radio, Sox outfielder Mark Kotsay said that the team is trying to acquire a left-handed hitter such as Adam Dunn or Aubrey Huff or possibly trying to trade for Prince Fielder.

9. Adam Dunn: Cubs. He swears he won't DH, which is his obvious natural position. The Nats are giving it what seems to be a lukewarm effort, as their GM Mike Rizzo seems to like defense. The A's, White Sox, Orioles and others would consider him for DH, but he has publicly stated that he much prefers to play the field.

10. Rafael Soriano: Angels. It's hard to imagine Angels owner Arte Moreno dealing so much with agent Scott Boras (who also represents Beltre) after being so upset to have lost Mark Teixeira. But Moreno is also unhappy to have let the Rangers pass them by. The Angels look like the most logical fit right now. The Red Sox could make sense if they trade Jonathan Papelbon.

11. Jorge de la Rosa: Rangers. In this weak starting pitching market, he might look better than his record would indicate. He has talent and youth on his side. He could go to any of the Lee also-rans.

12. Carl Pavano: Twins. They love him in the Twins clubhouse. He shouldn't leave, but he hasn't always used the best judgment in the past.

13. Carlos Pena, Nationals. The Nats are going for some huge scores and like Pena's slick defense. He won't hit as many home runs as Dunn, but he'll hit a bunch.

14. Joaquin Benoit: Yankees. The Yankees go for the best, and he was arguably baseball's best setup man last year.

15. Aubrey Huff: Giants. Players usually like to return to the site of the championship. There are plenty of examples of that not happening (Johnny Damon last year), but the Giants' title was particularly compelling.

The Padres and agent John Boggs both have handled the Adrian Gonzalez situation well. Gonzalez asked to be paid in the category of Mark Teixeira (and also Joe Mauer and Ryan Howard, who, Boggs pointed out, "signed as a controlled player" for $25 million a year) in a recent meeting with Padres' higher-ups, and nobody can blame him for that. But the Padres plainly told him that they won't do that. GM Jed Hoyer said he never made an offer, as the two sides were nowhere close. "Why throw something out there you know is going to be rejected?" Hoyer said in a phone interview. "It's so clear we're so far apart in what we're thinking. He really does want to take a shot at a Teixeira contract."

While that isn't a deal, everyone at least knows where they stand.

Rather than sugarcoat things for Padres fans, Hoyer took the unusual step of plainly stating that they will not be extending Gonzalez and that he might even entertain trade offers, and no one can blame the Padres for that, either. There's no sense stringing fans along when the chances are next to nil of Gonzalez staying in San Diego beyond 2011. "I don't want to perpetuate [false hope]," Hoyer said. San Diego may be a little mellower than most places, but Hoyer's honesty played as well as could be expected. In other words, there was no uprising.

Hoyer expects Gonzalez to begin the season with the Padres and hoped that he could keep him all year. But he made no promises. "I think he'll be here to start the season," said Hoyer. "And hopefully, he'll be here at the end, because that would mean we had another good season." If not, he will be one whopper of a July prize for someone. The Red Sox long have eyed Gonzalez, but he would also work well for the Mariners and many others. The Padres had extensive talks with the Dodgers a couple of years back, as well.

Though the $22 million that Gonzalez is seeking is a lot, it is in line with the category of elite hitter that Gonzalez has been. Though coming off his fourth straight 30-plus homer, 99-plus RBI season, Gonzalez will be vastly underpaid at $5.9 million this year without complaint. He didn't say it aloud but he has told people that he also doesn't want to repeat the Jake Peavy scenario, in which Peavy signed a big deal that quickly became an albatross. The Padres are believed to be have been willing to pay Gonzalez a total contract for about half the Teixeira and Mauer deals (both were eight for $180 million), maybe something around $90 million for six years -- though Hoyer wouldn't confirm that.

"They said they're not in a financial position to [pay close to what was requested], or let's put it this way, they chose not to," said Boggs. The Padres, whose $40 million payroll is expected to rise only slightly this season, are one of the small-market teams that intend to not commit a large percentage of their payroll to one player. And that makes sense, too.

• The Orioles, Nationals and Pirates are said to be aggressive players early in free agency. Good for them.

• Jorge Posada was told in a face-to-face meeting by Cashman that he's going to DH, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post. The Yankees hope that Francisco Cervelli or Jesus Montero can be the main catcher. They are very deep in catching prospects, with also Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez and J.R. Murphy as well.

• Any thought that Sabathia might opt out after next year are out the window after seeing his New Jersey spread in Architectural Digest this week. The detail is unbelievable in this home. Can't see the family picking up and leaving.

• Padres GM Hoyer said he tried to keep top exec Paul DePodesta but knew from the start that DePodesta couldn't refuse the Mets' new GM, Sandy Alderson, a longtime friend. DePodesta, the Mets' new VP of player development and scouting, reached an agreement to remain living in San Diego and is thought to be receiving a salary of close to $1 million a year from the Mets (Alderson's salary is rumored to be close to $3 million in what is thought to be baseball's most expensive front office). Mets holdover Wayne Krivsky, who has a year to go on his contract, and the newly-hired J.P. Ricciardi also are former GMs. Omar Minaya, the outgoing GM is still being paid more than $1 million for two more years, but hasn't decided what he'll do. Minaya's friends are being fired or leaving, but he has affection for Fred Wilpon and doesn't' appear to have completely ruled out a role with the Mets. John Ricco was seen as a future GM but it's unclear where he is on the depth chart now.

• While the Mets are loaded with front office people, they are down on scouts, with Russ Bove and Duane Larson fired and Bob Johnson bolting for the Braves. Scouting director Rudy Terrasas has a year to go on his contract.

• Terry Collins looks like a possible favorite for the Mets' managerial job, but Clint Hurdle, Don Wakamatsu and Bob Melvin all have major league experience and seem to fill the requirements. Alderson has interviewed several others without big league managing experience, but those seem less likely. (Just look at his front office. Nearly everyone has been a GM.) Alderson has ruled out Bobby Valentine as a candidate. Fan favorite Wally Backman is getting a second interview, reported Bob Klapisch and Steve Popper in the Bergen Record. My take is that Alderson understands that the fans and his bosses love Backman. He also wants to be as fair as possible to someone who has worked their way back after some unfortunate publicity. But one Alderson associate said, "I'd fall out of my chair if Sandy hires [Backman]."

• Hurdle is seen as the favorite in Pittsburgh if he doesn't get the Mets job. But if things don't work out there, either, the Pirates are likely to turn to interim bench coach Jeff Banister.

• Hisanori Takahashi is gone, and one person said there's a sentiment among some Mets people that Pedro Feliciano is "worn out," (if he is, you couldn't really blame him after leading the league in appearances the past three seasons, with 86, 88 and 92, respectively), so he may go, too. That means that the only proven entity in the Mets' bullpen may be embattled closer Francisco Rodriguez, whom the Mets would likely avoid using to finish 55 games, as that would trigger a $17 million option.

• It appears likely that the Mets will wait to see Jose Reyes play a large chunk of this coming season before getting serious about a long-term deal.

• Word is that Brad Penny is in "the best shape of his life." That shouldn't be a surprise since the free agent is engaged to Dancing with the Stars dancer Karina Smirnoff.

• Oakland's bid for Hisashi Iwakuma was about $17 million for someone whom one scout described as an "unexceptional pitcher." The A's have made good pitching choices before, so perhaps opinions should be reserved for now, though.

• Star infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka of the Chiba Lotte Marines is expected to post soon. He hit a career-best .346 this year, raising his lifetime average to .293. He was also very impressive in the WBC in 2006. One Japanese scout said, "His talent will translate," though suggested that Nishioka's productivity may depend to some degree on his being in the right environment.

• The Gold Glove awards weren't perfect again. While Derek Jeter deserved his fourth award last year, Elvis Andrus or Alexei Ramirez probably would have been better choices this year. Jeter was very solid (only six errors, 94 DPs) but doesn't have the range of those other two now. In any case, Jeter gets more ammunition for his contract talks. UZR aficionados were flabbergasted at the choice, but don't blame the writers. These awards are voted on by managers and coaches.

• Edgar Renteria told Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes that he's willing to play second base to continue his career, Though a World Series MVP would have been a nice way to go out, it appears that the World Series got Renteria's competitive juices flowing. Renteria was also hurt much of the year, so perhaps he wasn't at his best. Not until the end, anyway.

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