LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As the second day of the baseball winter meetings got under way Tuesday, the buzz finally surrounded the biggest prize on the market, left-hander Cliff Lee. To throw the puns of puns at you, it came with a curveball.
According to several reports, the Washington Nationals, the same team that wowed the world with their massive seven-year, $126-million contract to outfielder Jayson Werth, may be the only team prepared to give Lee a seventh year. If the duration of a deal is the most important factor to Lee, then the Nationals could single-handedly steal the spotlight at the annual gathering, if they haven't already. Nothing could trump their haul, unless someone like the Angels would be willing to nab both Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre.
The New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, the two teams at the forefront of the Lee sweepstakes, are likely not willing to go past six years. The Rangers have wavered on even offering a sixth year.
And since Yankee happenings are so often tied to Red Sox happenings, the Boston brass has to be smiling over the development.
Boston, which has at least made contact with Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, has been wrestling with the idea of adding a right-handed bat. While general manager Theo Epstein insisted Monday night that he feels comfortable with the thought of having at least four regulars in the lineup hitting from the left side, he is seeking a righty to add some sort of balance.
Whether that is, as Epstein indicated, a "complementary piece" or a bench player, remains to be seen. What is clear is that if the Sox' biggest rivals — who already have lefty CC Sabathia at the front of their rotation and could return veteran southpaw Andy Pettitte if he decides not to retire — fail to land that third big-time left-hander, the supposed issue of balance in the Boston lineup won't matter as much.
No matter what executives and coaches on both sides might say, the 18 games between Boston and New York are never far from the minds of GMs when making out their rosters. As an example, the Yanks brought in A.J. Burnett two offseasons ago in large part due to his prior success vs. the Sox. The two have famously battled over free agents for years.
If Pettitte does retire, perhaps that effort to bring in a right-handed bat is even less pressing. Epstein can turn all his attention to fixing the bullpen, which he stressed again Monday night was his top priority of the week.
Not that every decision the Sox have to make is dictated by the Yankees, but if New York's top priority of the offseason falls to pieces, Boston's could get that much easier.