Lee, Crawford, or Beltre - who would you "overpay"?

By non-tendering Cust and Encarnacion, and by failing to come to terms with Iwakuma, one could argue that the A's have staked their offseason to the hopes of making a powerful and wise investment of their remaining $20-25M.  In this thread I would like you to think about making a gigantic financial commitment to one of the three elite Type A free agents that remain on the market - Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, or Adrian Beltre.

I am sticking to my guns from earlier this offseason of both hoping and predicting that the A's take advantage of their protected first-round pick by signing a "difference maker" - a potential 5-win player.  I believe that the A's are on the upswing and that this season will be the last time that the team finishes in the bottom 15 in MLB (protected pick) for the foreseeable future.  Indeed, they just barely qualified this year, finishing with the 16th best record.

Given that the compensation pick/sandwich round will probably end up being larger than ever this year, we can project that signing Crawford, Lee, or Beltre would come at the talent cost of about the No. ~70 overall draft pick, the A's second round selection.  This is a pittance - although a No. 70 overall pick can certainly become a successful major leaguer, no one would bank on it. 

What is most certainly not a pittance, however, is the financial commitment. When we discuss the A's offering a hypothetical contract for one of these players, it only makes sense to construct offers that would be significantly better than the second-best offer they receive.  Almost four months ago, I advocated signing Carl Crawford to a frontloaded, eight-year contract for a total value of $140M, with the first year salary starting at $25M.  Part of my argument was that this year's free agent class has more elite talent than the next two, which will be headlined by Prince Fielder (2011) and Zach Greinke (2012). It's interesting to look back at the comments of that post:  some of the loudest critics of that proposal wrote phrases like this: 

There's no way I'd give Crawford nine figures.
Crawford figures to get an offer of five years, $85M from Boston.
Five years, $85-90M should get it done.
  Maybe with a signing bonus, too.

Ironically, a few of those same loud voices are the ones who are most critical of Beane's progress thus far in free agency, which I find a bit hypocritical - if you, as a very educated fan, misread the FA market by that much, why are you upset that he might have done the same? 

This brings us to the use of the word "overpay" in the title.  I put it in quotes for a reason - in baseball contract terms, it's a loaded and nebulous term.  Defining what represented an "overpay" for Carl Crawford four months ago was, as shown by the comments of that thread, an extremely difficult task, and one that forces people to pick sides rather than reach consensus.  But I use that word in this thread to get everyone focused on the fact that it will require more money than you think an elite player is worth to get him to sign in Oakland.

One thing you have to give the Nationals credit for - they made an offer that was so aggressive (seven years, $126M) that they landed the exact player they had built their offseason around.  They will not find themselves in January/February with a pile of cash, and only Ben Sheets to spend it on.  Unlike two offseasons ago, when they actually had the largest bid for Mark Teixiera by a few million and still lost him to the Yankees, they made such an overwhelming offer this time that Scott Boras allegedly did not even check back with other suitors before accepting the deal.

This is the blueprint for how a non-marquee franchise signs an elite talent, and it's pretty darn close to exactly what I've been advocating for the A's for a long time.  And the team, through a sequence of questionable actions, remains in position to make one of these investments.*

*Tangent:  I don't agree with non-tendering Cust or Encarnacion.  Despite their defensive limitations, they would've represented two of the team's better hitters, and given the explosion of their free agent market, their salaries in arbitration look even more reasonable.  More important is the fact that no player picks Oakland as his first choice, and arbitration locks a player into that arrangement on a recurring one-year deal.  A team in a desirable situation - even the Giants - can let a player like Cust or Encarnacion go in arbitration, because there's a free agent out there who wants to sign with the Giants for a discount (Pat Burrell).  No such situation exists in Oakland.  End tangent.*

By not signing Iwakuma, and by non-tendering Cust and Encarnacion, we can still assume that this team has enough money in the coffers to sign a truly elite talent.  So, if you had to "overpay" one player from the trio above, whom would it be?

1.  Would you offer Cliff Lee the game-changing seven-year deal he covets, and form the best starting rotation in baseball? This would have the added benefit of keeping him away from the Rangers, and giving them very meager compensation for losing him (No. ~70 overall pick, rather than the No. ~30 overall pick from the Yankees).

2.  Would you offer Crawford a frontloaded eight-year deal at $140-150M?  By frontloading the deal, you're making it very hard for the Yankees, Angels, or Red Sox to match, because their preference would be to backload the deal as much as possible to avoid luxury tax implications.  You're also increasing the total value of the deal to Crawford by frontloading it, given inflation. 

3.  Or would you instead circle back to Beltre?  If the best offer he gets is the A's at five years, $64M, that doesn't mean he takes it, necessarily.  He might sign with the Angels for slightly less, similar to Teixiera with NYY in '08, for the opportunity to be near his family and to return to LA.  He could instead sign a one-year deal again in a hitter's park, with the promise that the signing team can't offer him arbitration after 2011,  and then re-enter the market next season, coming off two consecutive great years,  when both the Dodgers and Angels will probably need 3b and he'll be the best overall offensive player on the free-agent market (assuming Pujols and Gonzalez sign extensions).  Thus perhaps the A's do need to bid against themselves in order to sign him:  If he'd sign for the Angels for less money than the A's have offered, how much more do they need to offer to overcome his preference for LA?

Please vote in the poll below.

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