Yankees ready to begin pursuit of Lee

Yankees ready to begin pursuit of Lee

NEW YORK -- With two days of organizational meetings complete, the Yankees are prepared to begin their pursuit of free-agent left-hander Cliff Lee, widely considered the top available pitcher on the open market.

The Yankees' top brass spent Monday and Tuesday huddling at the club's complex in Tampa, Fla., to prioritize their winter planning. New York's top priority from outside the organization is Lee, an official familiar with the meetings has told The Associated Press.

Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner conducted a pair of New York radio interviews on Tuesday, and while he declined to address Lee by name, Steinbrenner said that the Yankees would be ready to spend.

"What I can tell you is we're looking at the free-agent market every year, and there are always areas of improvement," Steinbrenner told 1050 ESPN. "The free-agent market is certainly a big thing we look at. We're going to have plenty to spend and we're going to enter into it."

Free agents can begin negotiating with all teams starting Sunday. The Rangers have also said that they hope to re-sign Lee, who won the 2008 American League Cy Young Award for the Indians.

Lee was 2-0 against the Yankees for the Phillies in the 2009 World Series and beat New York for the Rangers in this year's AL Championship Series before losing both starts he made against the Giants in this year's World Series, his first career postseason losses.

Steinbrenner said that he expects the club's Opening Day payroll to be near the same level as this year, when the team clocked in at an estimated $206.3 million.

"We know we're expected to field a championship-caliber team and we're going to do what it takes to do that," Steinbrenner said on 1050 ESPN. "So if we have to get creative in a trade, or if we have to go out for a big free agent, we're going to do it. We do have some money coming off."

The Yankees' in-house priorities are re-signing franchise talents Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, both of whom became free agents on Tuesday. The Yankees also hope to hear that Andy Pettitte will decide to continue pitching for another season.

"Obviously, re-signing Jeter and Mo are going to be a priority," Steinbrenner said on WFAN. "But we're still going to have money left over. These meetings are pretty initial at this point, but it's all about prioritizing what we need to do and looking at the free-agent market, and eventually looking at possible trades to improve."

Rays left fielder Carl Crawford and setup man Joaquin Benoit were among the other free agents the Yankees discussed, according to the AP. The Los Angeles Angels also are thought to be interested in Crawford.

Tuesday's session included Steinbrenner, general manager Brian Cashman, president Randy Levine, chief operating officer Lonn Trost and assistant general manager Jean Afterman.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.