Rangers must bid on Cliff Lee

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The last time the Texas Rangers saw agent Darek Braunecker, they asked him precisely what it's going to take to bring pitcher Cliff Lee back to Arlington in 2011.

After giving the matter careful consideration, Braunecker determined that it's not his responsibility to tell the Rangers how to spend their money. So he will wait for the club to make its best offer -- and then let Lee and his wife, Kristen, decide if it works for them.

"We have no interest in participating in the unconventional negotiating style the club has requested," Braunecker told ESPN.com early Thursday morning. "For the player to submit an offer to the club ... that's not the way the process works."

The Lee pursuit, far and away the biggest news left in the Hot Stove season, keeps ratcheting up in intensity. First came reports that the New York Yankees have six- and seven-year contract offers on the table. And now the Rangers will be sending a contingent to Little Rock, Ark., on Thursday to meet with Lee and Braunecker. It's the Rangers' third trip to Arkansas to court Lee this winter.

Lee, already at the center of a spirited bidding war between the Rangers and Yankees, appears to be in an even stronger bargaining position after Wednesday's surprise news that outfielder Carl Crawford has agreed to a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. Now the big question appears to be whether Lee's market will spiral high enough to surpass the seven-year, $161 million deal that CC Sabathia signed with the Yankees in December 2008. That's the largest contract ever for a pitcher.

Rangers president Nolan Ryan expressed disappointment Thursday that the Yankees were willing to go seven years.

"Well, you know, if the reports that are coming out are true, obviously that makes it more challenging for us," he said.

The Angels were considered the overwhelming favorite to sign Crawford, who would have given the team a healthy dose of speed, defense and gate appeal in left field. Now that the Angels have missed out on Crawford, general manager Tony Reagins is left with four options. He can either: 1) jump into the bidding for Lee; 2) try to improve his club through trades; 3) move on to Scott Boras' top remaining free agents, third baseman Adrian Beltre and closer Rafael Soriano; or 4) let the offseason play out without a marquee free-agent addition. The final option would be a tough sell to Angels' season ticket holders after the team just failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in seven years.

When asked about Lee at the winter meetings Thursday morning, Reagins declined to tip his hand.

"I'm not going to discuss any free agents in the media arena," Reagins said. "I don't think that's appropriate. What I can say is that we're going to be looking for opportunities to improve our club. That could materialize in a number of different ways."

When a reporter asked if the Angels might have a "huge splash" in store soon, Reagins pointed to the team's recent acquisition of Hisanori Takahashi -- who posted a 10-6 record with a 3.61 ERA for the Mets last season.

"I think I already made a huge splash with Takahashi," Reagins said. "Some people don't think that. But he adds a lot of value to our club."

New York and Texas have been highly motivated in their pursuit of Lee since the offseason began. The Yankees have a reported, six-year, $140 million offer on the table, and sources say they have also given Lee the option of a seven-year contract with a lower average annual value. The total payout for New York's proposed seven-year deal is undetermined.

One thing for sure is that the Yankees need another top-flight starter. With Andy Pettitte still debating whether he wants to return to pitch another season, New York's starting rotation currently consists of Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and rookie Ivan Nova. Sabathia underwent right knee surgery in late October, Burnett was a disappointing 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA in 2010, and Hughes and Nova will both be 24 years old on Opening Day.

In a Wednesday session with reporters at the winter meetings, Yankees manager Joe Girardi classified Lee as a "pretty important" signing for the club.

"He's a guy that wins," Girardi said. "He's a guy that gives you innings. He's a guy that knows how to pitch on the big stage. He's everything that you'd want, and a guy that you would ask to help you win another championship. He's the complete package."

Ryan, Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg and general manager Jon Daniels all reiterated their interest in Lee during meetings with Braunecker at the Disney Swan & Dolphin resort this week. Lee helped pitch the Rangers to the World Series after coming over from Seattle in a July trade, and several of his Texas teammates vowed to spend the winter lobbying him to re-sign with the club this winter.

Ryan said Wednesday that he asked the Lee camp what they are looking for.

"I think if they come back with a proposal of what it's going to take for him to come over, we're going to have to sit down and look at it and talk about it," Ryan had said. "I think that's where we are, waiting to hear back from them.

"We've asked them to give us a number for Cliff Lee to come to the Rangers, what it will take."

After meeting with interested suitors in Lake Buena Vista this week, Braunecker left the winter meetings Wednesday, flew home to Arkansas and spent some time in the evening conferring with Lee, who had just returned from a hunting trip.

Baseball sources said it's likely the Lee sweepstakes will be resolved sometime within the next few days. Since the Rangers, Yankees and Angels all have to explore other alternatives if they miss out on Lee, they have a vested interest in seeing the situation play out as quickly as possible.

The market has been kind to Major League Baseball's elite free agents this offseason. Outfielder Jayson Werth signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals to kick off the winter meetings Sunday, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez reportedly has the framework in place for a seven-year, $154 million agreement with Boston that will be finalized after the start of the regular season.

The presence of three teams in the race, as opposed to two, might prompt one of the bidders to go beyond its initial comfort zone in an effort to distinguish itself from the pack in the Lee chase. If the Angels plan to insert themselves in the process, they don't have much time to wait.

Ryan expressed optimism Thursday that the Rangers remain strong candidates for Lee despite the Yankees' six-year, $140 million bid and possibility of a seventh year.

"Am I disappointed that it's gotten to that level? Yeah," Ryan said. "But it keeps going and going."

Jerry Crasnick is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPNDallas.com's Richard Durrett was used in this report.