Red Sox owner John Henry e-mails near midnight that his Sox "are not going to be a factor" in the Mark Teixeira talks. The New York Yankees sign ace pitcher CC Sabathia at 4 a.m.
Baseball is a nocturnal game in the winter, loaded with dark shadows, misdirection and bluffing. Negotiations are conducted in secret, in the blackness, with all of the elements of a good Sherlock Holmes plot. Only I don't think agent Scott Boras smokes a pipe.
Anyway, now comes another sharp twist in the narrative, and of the many questions still to be answered, one sticks out like the Washington Monument:
|Will Ted Lerner be the next dupe ... um, er, owner, to lavish millions on a Scott Boras client? (Getty Images)|
Barring a change of heart from the Red Sox -- and, trust me, nobody in the industry would be surprised if there is -- the Teixeira race now appears to have narrowed to three teams (for now).
The Los Angeles Angels (cue the trumpets from on high).
The Baltimore Orioles (cue the slide show from the Babe Ruth Museum and the misty eyes from Cal Ripken's Iron Horse night).
And -- ha, ha, ha -- the -- ho, ho, ho -- Nationals!
Cue the laugh track, right?
Not so fast.
Understand, there are plenty of reasons to take them seriously.
One, there's that eight-year, $160 million offer the Nationals slapped onto Boras' desk a week or so ago.
Two, as I wrote earlier this month, Boras is an absolute genius at cozying up to rube owners (Texas' Tom Hicks, the A-Rod $252 million contract in January 2001), new owners (Fox Entertainment Group, Dodgers, the $105 million to Kevin Brown in December 1998) and desperate owners (Detroit's Mike Ilitch, $40 million to Ivan Rodriguez in February 2004).
Three, not only was the magical Boras able to squeeze the A-Rod contract from Hicks in '01, he then pulled a dunce cap tight onto the owner's head by snake-charming a $65 million contract for Chan Ho Park the next winter!
Four, the Nationals are highly motivated to do something after opening their new ballpark to pratfalls and empty seats last summer.
To be perfectly clear, this isn't a prediction that Teixeira will be delivered to the Nationals.
But if he is, and if you're surprised, then you simply haven't been paying attention.
Boras' clients don't leave money on the table. They sweep every last nickel off of it and sign with the highest bidder. The Nationals already have announced they're serious players. And owner Ted Lerner and his family have plenty of motivation to remain so, and perhaps even overpay.
They lost 102 games last season and looked terrible doing it. The play was abysmal. The body language of their players was worse. Rivals were disgusted with the way several Nationals players casually walked on and off the field. A coach with a club that had recently played Washington told me last summer that it was the most unprofessional thing he had ever seen on a big league field.
More embarrassing was the fact that the Nationals ranked 19th in attendance, among the worst showings for a club in a new ballpark in big-league history. And that the club's television ratings were so pathetically abysmal that nobody could believe they were accurate. The commissioner's office even investigated.
"This offseason, we're going to give consideration to going to other places we haven't been," the normally reclusive Lerner, 83, told Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell in September. "But it has to make sense."
Does forking over something close to $200 million for Teixeira make sense?
From the standpoint of winning immediately, absolutely not. The wretched Nationals are beyond a quick fix. They would be much better served spreading that money over multiple middle-tier free agents and dumping the rest of it into the farm system and draft picks.
From the standpoint of gaining credibility in their community, and beginning the process of digging out of the sewage, it makes some sense. In the same sort of way that a new rec center can boost the spirits of a poverty-stricken neighborhood.
Their dilemma: From a baseball standpoint, they need to look at long-term fixes; from a business standpoint, they need short-term solutions.
For three years, Nationals president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden have talked about building an organization the right way -- going young and constructing a strong farm system.
Smart, and admirable. But as the club has learned the hard way, by failing to sign any serious free agents over the past couple of winters, that doesn't inspire the fan base. Especially when 102 losses are stacking up in a given season.
Sources familiar with the Nationals' thinking say the bitter aftertaste of losing first-round pick Aaron Crow last summer is what finally changed Lerner's thinking. The Nationals were following baseball's recommendations for "slotting" -- paying first-round draft picks signing bonuses recommended by the commissioner's office -- in negotiating with Crow, the No. 9 overall pick. Other clubs ignored the recommendations.
Where will Mark Teixeira end up?
A surprise team
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It ended up costing the Nationals -- who, remember, have emphasized building from the ground up -- a key pick.
One person with knowledge of the Nats' winter approach characterized Lerner's attitude this way: "I've tried it their (baseball's) way. Now I'm going to try it my way."
When Lerner and Teixeira met two weeks ago, sources say each came away highly impressed with the other.
Question is, will Lerner's determination to fix the Nationals, combined with his dollars, be enough to persuade Teixeira to choose them over the Red Sox and Angels, a couple of teams who are October fixtures?
"It's bizarre," one major league executive says of the Nationals' foray into an area they've never before approached. "My gut is I think they feed on doing this because nobody is going to sign with them and they can say, 'We tried.'"
The Nationals offer a match with Teixeira in location (he's from a Baltimore suburb and it is believed he prefers to play with an East Coast team) and, from all appearances, in dollars.
They don't offer a match if winning now is more important to Teixeira than dollars.
Still, following an abysmal season by signing a big-time Boras client is not unprecedented. The Tigers lured Rodriguez the winter after they lost 119 games (though they also had added Carlos Guillen, Rondell White and Fernando Vina). The Rangers were 71-91 the season before signing Rodriguez.
However, the Rangers who signed A-Rod were far closer to winning than these Nationals who would sign Teixeira.
The Nationals fired manager Manny Acta's entire coaching staff at season's end save for pitching coach Randy St. Claire. President Kasten has been rumored for months to be at odds with the Lerners and looking for an escape.
What we know now is, Boston is either out completely or completely bluffing, and so the Teixeira Talks move on down the buffet line toward the next zillion-dollar possibility.
Behind closed doors, the negotiations move along.
Out here in the open, the highly speculative guessing game -- and that's all it is -- continues.
"I think a lot of people have gotten confused," Acta said last week at the winter meetings of Washington ownership's view of a marquee free agent like Teixeira. "It's not that they're not willing to go out there and sign a free agent. It's that we're looking for the free agent that can fit for us in the long-term. And if the right guy is out there, then our ownership group has shown so far that they'll be willing to make the move."
Meantime, said one executive, "I don't think it's real easy to hit home runs in Nationals Park, and Boras always does things to ensure that his guys have the best stats. That's why A-Rod signed with Texas."
On the other hand, the one statistic Boras and his clients bat 1.000 on is the extraordinary number of zeroes that wind up on the check.