Free agency -- and maybe a return to Texas -- looms for Lackey

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NEW YORK -- Texan John Lackey, the Angels' ace and Game 1 starter on Friday night here, was spotted at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium for their inaugural game earlier this month and is known to possess a suite there as well as a strong love of his home state, increasing speculation that he might consider jumping to the rival Rangers if given the chance.

But while the Abilene, Texas native may relish a return home, the chances of that happening may also depend on whether the Thanksgiving deadline is met for the sale of the Rangers franchise. Regardless, Lackey should have plenty of alternatives, especially if he keeps pitching like he did in the Division Series, when he threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox in a Game 1 win.

The right-hander, who went 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA and is known as a big-game pitcher, is in an excellent position as easily the best starting pitcher about to be on the free-agent market. "His timing couldn't be better,'' one American League general manager said. "He's a difference-maker, and there aren't a lot of difference-makers out there this year, especially in terms of starting pitchers.'' Lackey is cited as often for his competitiveness and toughness as he is for his talent.

While Lackey has thrived in Anaheim, the chances of him returning to the Angels appear fairly remote, considering their contractual offer back in the spring was for only about half what he is expected to seek. According to a person familiar with those talks, the Angels offered a deal for three years and close to $40 million on top of the $10 million salary that he was to be paid in 2009, bringing the total package to close to $50 million. Potentially, Lackey could double that as a free agent.

One of baseball's best organizations, the Angels have absorbed big-time defections before, such as closer Francisco Rodriguez going to the Mets and slugger Mark Teixeira to the Yankees last winter, and their acquisition of left-hander Scott Kazmir was just one step they took toward improving this year's rotation depth, providing them some insurance in case Lackey leaves.

The Angels, second to St. Louis in terms of impact free agents with stars Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guererro and Chone Figgins also eligible this winter, are known to like a good deal, as they got in signing Abreu for $5 million and Brian Fuentes for a $17 million, two-year deal after the free-agent market fizzled last year. And while Lackey is said by a friend to still be considering the Angels and "keeping his options open,'' the pitcher made clear when negotiations broke apart this spring that he wasn't about to do a team-friendly deal again after doing one last time. So the Angels, who broke off talks in the spring when Lackey was having an issue with his forearm, presumably would have to boost their original offer precipitously to have a chance.

Word has been going around that Lackey will seek "A.J. Burnett money,'' which means $82.5 million over five years. "He'll get Burnett's deal,'' one competing GM said flat out. But unless the market is soft again, he could actually exceed that figure. By most any measure, Lackey, who turns 31 during the World Series, is better than Burnett, 32. He has been the more consistent and healthier pitcher, and he has a litany of successful big-game starts dating back to his rookie year of 2002.

The Yankees, Mets and crosstown Dodgers are among many logical landing spots. But true or not, the Rangers' rumors are picking up steam. The Angels' rival is an improving team that could be attractive for Lackey. They have been in need of an ace and have seen up close what Lackey can do.

The Rangers, who attempted to acquire Roy Halladay this summer, surely like Lackey's arm and competitiveness. But they have to wonder whether the price tag will be right for them. There's also considerable question as to what they can do at this point, as current owner Tom Hicks is still in the process of selling the team.

Lackey would represent a coup for any new owner. "He's a horse,'' one American League scout said. He's a horse most believe is about to bolt.

• Pitching guru Rick Peterson may have a couple options. He has interviewed with the Brewers to become their pitching coach, and his close relationship with Willie Randolph from their days together with the Mets before they got fired together makes that a natural fit. Peterson wasn't thought to be especially close to manager Ken Macha when the pair was in Oakland, but word is that they have talked things over and appear very willing to try a reunion. Peterson, a New Jersey resident, also might have a chance to become a pitching coordinator for the Yankees.

• John Farrell, widely thought to be the first choice, is said to be "out" as a candidate for the Indians' managerial job. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he prefers to remain Red Sox pitching coach, and an Indians person suggested that they don't expect that to change. Bobby Valentine, Torey Lovullo and Manny Acta are on the Indians' list. Cleveland's plan is to do phone interviews, then bring in five people for in-person interviews.

• Billy Wagner's agent, Bean Stringfellow, said that Wagner is "absolutely'' coming back to play next year. Wagner can be emotional, but Stringfellow said that the whole retirement story was a misunderstanding. Stringfellow explained that it wouldn't make any sense for Wagner to have done 11 months of rehabbing for only a month of pitching. Plus, he pitched very well upon returning. The Red Sox are expected to offer him arbitration, but Wagner is thought likely to turn it down so he can close elsewhere. The Braves, Astros and Cubs look like possibilities.

• The rumored Milton Bradley-for-Pat Burrell swap makes sense from the Rays' perspective. "Bradley needs to go to Tampa Bay, someplace where there's no media,'' one GM said. But what does it do for the Cubs? "Burrell can't play the outfield anymore,'' another GM pointed out.

• One scout explained Joe Nathan's Division Series struggles this way: "They wore him out.''

• If the Mets ever have a managerial opening, one person they'd have interest in is the ex-Met Ron Gardenhire, who has done an excellent job overall with the Twins.

• The White Sox may consider listening to offers for closer Bobby Jenks, who made $5.6 million as an arbitration-eligible player this year. Chicago could employ hard-throwing left-hander Matt Thornton as closer. But the issue then becomes: Who replaces Thornton as setup man?

• Oliver Perez has decided to move to Arizona, where he hopes the weather and distraction-free environment will enable him to resurrect his career.

• There is growing sentiment around baseball that Joba Chamberlain will be a reliever next year, especially after he looked great in that role in the Division Series.

• Dodgers manager Joe Torre made the right call by going with youngster Clayton Kershaw and ex-Phillie Vicente Padilla in Games 1 and 2 at Dodger Stadium and allowing tough veteran Randy Wolf to pitch Game 3 in Philly. Wolf also is a former Phillie, but he was appreciated there and shouldn't suffer as much abuse as Padilla would, as Mitch Williams pointed out on MLB Network.

• The timing of the Dodgers' announcement that the club-owning McCourts are separating was interesting. This was an open secret in baseball circles already. Wife and Dodgers CEO Jamie is already the highest-ranking female executive in the game, and observers wouldn't be surprised if she tried to put together a group to buy out her husband, Frank. But one baseball source said, "The Dodgers are not for sale now, and it will be a while for them to go on the block.''

• Rudy Jaramillo is looking for either a managerial job or a significant raise after turning down the Rangers' contract offer. The well-respected Jaramillo is believed to have made $600,000 last year. He is interested in managing, but he is popular enough where he can probably expect to match or even top that as a free-agent hitting coach. The Cubs could be one possibility. The Giants just let go of Carney Lansford, blaming him for their weak lineup. Rick Down, who did a very good job as hitting coach with the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers and Orioles and is currently a Giants scout, would make sense for San Francisco, as well. The Mets have had interest in Jaramillo in the past, but apparently Howard Johnson is entrenched as hitting coach there. Jaramillo is tight with both A-Rod and Teixeira from their Texas days, but one source said, "The Yankees are very happy with Kevin Long'' as hitting coach.

• It's amazing how many scouts are declaring Brad Lidge cured after two successful saves in the Division Series. But he relied only on a slider to strike out Troy Tulowitzki to close out Game 4 and end the series.

• TV ratings were up 11 percent for the first round. And if Torre's Dodgers wind up playing the Yankees in the World Series, the TV people will be really happy.

• Based on how the umpiring went in the Division Series, it's a positive that umpires cannot work two playoff series in a row. But hopefully that doesn't mean that the worst of the first-round crews will be back for the World Series.