ANAHEIM -- Cliff Lee holds the key to the free-agent puzzle. The Angels, who have had their share of disagreements with the Yankees in October competition, are in the rare position of pulling for the Bronx Bombers to unlock it, for several reasons. If Lee, whose arm and swagger drove the Rangers to their first World Series appearance in 2010, elects to follow the money to New York and become a new version of Whitey Ford, it's a good thing for the Angels with respect to the primary object of their free-agent affections, Carl Crawford. Should Lee, on the other hand, decide to make Texas his home for what likely will be the balance of his career, the Yankees probably would be motivated to join their eternal rivals in Boston in pursuit of Crawford. If successful, the Yanks could move one of their outfielders -- Brett Gardner would be in high demand -- for a starting pitcher.
The Yankees and Red Sox have track records for using their vast resources without a lot of restraint, going much deeper in length and dollars on contracts than the Angels have over the years. Owner Arte Moreno at least has the guidelines of a budget, whereas New York and Boston tend to respond to what moves them. If Crawford is determined to land a deal beyond five or six years, as has been reported, it might take the Angels out of the hunt. During the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes after the 2008 season, two additional years at $22.5 million each tipped the scales in the Yankees' favor, causing considerable hurt and anger on the opposite coast. Six years apparently was where the Angels drew a line in the sand. A duel with the Red Sox, who covet Crawford, would be challenging enough for the Angels. Bringing Yankees dollars into it would take it to another level altogether. Investing what it will take to purchase Lee, however, the Yankees likely would be content to go with their incumbents in the outfield behind the lefty-heavy rotation fronted by CC Sabathia and old Cleveland buddy Lee. While courting Crawford, the Angels also are paying close attention to third baseman Adrian Beltre, who could be just as valuable an addition given the position he plays, the way he plays it and his proven ability to drive the ball. It behooves the Angels to keep irons in both these fires. This will keep general manager Tony Reagins attached to his BlackBerry close to 24 hours per day when everyone settles into the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Sunday evening for the Winter Meetings. "We're going to be looking at opportunities at the Winter Meetings and beyond," Reagins said on Thursday night after announcing the highly underrated signing of free-agent southpaw Hisanori Takahashi. "If it's an opportunity that makes sense for us, we're going to be aggressive and pursue it." Crawford is a low-key, easy-going gentleman from Houston who happens to be one of the superior athletes in sports, never mind baseball. In his youth, he had the talent to play in the NFL and was a Division I basketball recruit as well. Think Deion Sanders without the "Neon" and with more power, and that's Crawford. The Angels know what Crawford would mean to them, offensively and defensively. He'd provide the juice in the top third of the order they missed last season when Chone Figgins moved north to Seattle. He has hit second most of his career, but Crawford is coming into his power at 29 and is more of a No. 3 hitter than a leadoff man at this stage of his career. The Angels, pending more moves, would have Bobby Abreu, Erick Aybar and Howard Kendrick to maneuver with Crawford in those top three positions, with Peter Bourjos another possibility if he has a great spring. The truest of the club's leadoff hitters is Reggie Willits, who should not be overlooked as an option there. In his limited opportunities to lead off on a regular basis, notably in 2007, when he was a driving force, Willits has showed everything you look for in that role: discipline, the ability to work counts and run the bases aggressively and intelligently. Defensively, Crawford routinely grades out as the game's premier left fielder. Some numbers crunchers will go so far as to tell you he's the best defender at any position in the game. An outfield of Crawford, Bourjos and Torii Hunter potentially would be as good as anything we've seen. It would be an enormous upgrade, especially for fly-ball pitchers on the staff, such as ace Jered Weaver. "I don't think we need to make a lot of changes," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "but we're always looking to improve our club." Referring specifically to the offense, he added, "We've taken the paint off this issue, especially with the season we had last year with it and where we are now. There are a lot of things that factor into it. In some areas, there are going to have to be personnel changes." Scioscia doesn't sound greedy. He's encouraged by the pending return of slugging first baseman Kendry Morales, whom he calls "the best free-agent we could get." But the man has a history of savoring speed, knowing how it thrills -- and kills. Few men in the game apply pressure like Carl Crawford. The Yankees broke the Angels' hearts -- temporarily at least, before Morales' emergence -- when they snatched Teixeira away. Stealing Lee from the Rangers wouldn't bother them at all. In fact, it might be one of the best things that could happen to them as they are transformed from the hunted to the hunter.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.