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11/05/10 10:00 AM EST

Open season on free agents about to begin

Group headed by Lee, Crawford, Werth available to all on Sunday

The season -- that proverbial marathon -- is in the books. It's time for the Free Agency Mile.

The gun goes off for a pool of 160-plus free agents hitting the track at 12:01 a.m. ET on Sunday, when open negotiations can begin between the players and the 30 clubs seeking help.

Among those in the starting blocks are left-hander Cliff Lee, the face of the past two postseasons for two different teams; Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, a pair of multi-dimensional outfielders; and Adrian Beltre, a third baseman coming off his second "career" season at 31. That quartet will command the spotlight and most of the attention, towering above the rest of a checkered field.

Still, it is a group with power (first basemen Adam Dunn and Adam LaRoche) and lots of history (Trevor Hoffman, Jim Thome and Matt Stairs), as well as a good closing kick (Rafael Soriano).

Some team icons are also lacing them up. Few if any observers realistically expect Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera to shed their pinstripes, and Andy Pettitte's only desire appears to be staying with the Yankees or retiring. Less clear are the fates of Paul Konerko (White Sox) and Jason Varitek (Red Sox).

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This race is often run the same: Certain teams, the "rabbits," will aggressively set the early pace, then will have eased back into the pack by the time the big-spending burners close in on their quarry with furious finishes.

The Yankees, with Lee squarely in their bull's-eye, will again be in that scrum. But the bidding for top talent is expected to be more spirited than usual, as several clubs with needs and deep pockets are ready to join the melee.

The Red Sox are eager after a lower-market profile and changed philosophy last offseason didn't bring desired results. The Angels still need power, but now also need a catalyst atop their lineup.

New ownership plus a rich new television package will prompt the Rangers to assertively try to reload to defend their American League title. The Nationals believe they are getting close to being a National League East force and still have the money Mark Teixeira didn't want two years ago. And because they will be forceful, the neighboring Orioles, already upbeat from the Buck Showalter break-in, will try to keep up.

Free agency naturally comes with the obvious headliners, certainly the case this time. Seldom has one individual stood out from the crowd as Lee does now.

In play, this had been the Year of the Pitcher. In free agency, it is the Year of Cliff Lee. There is simply no one else even approaching his credentials. Of the 27 other starting pitchers on the market, four had winning records with 10 or more wins (Freddy Garcia, Bruce Chen, Carl Pavano and Jon Garland), none had an ERA below 3.20, and none won a Cy Young Award two years ago.

Between injuries and poor first-half offensive support during his time with Seattle, Lee himself had a mediocre 12-9 record. But he also still had his ridiculous command (185 strikeouts and 16 unintentional walks), and of course he enhanced his postseason reputation with the Rangers' run to the World Series (where he lost twice to the Giants, but, really, made only one bad pitch in the final game, the one on which Edgar Renteria homered).

The first taste of free agency arrives at an opportune time for Lee, as well as for Werth. Both have risen above long-forgotten struggles at the outset of their careers.

Although he had considerable prior success, Lee spent part of 2007 in the Minors and after posting a 5-8 record that year for the Indians, he approached his age-30 season with a lifetime record of 54-36. He has since gone 48-25 in three seasons with four different teams.

Werth's latter-day breakthrough has been more remarkable. For five seasons, he drifted through three different clubhouses as a role player -- the Blue Jays, the Dodgers and even the Phillies in his 2007 introduction -- accumulating only 976 at-bats and batting .259 in them. Then he worked himself into being one of the five-tool catalysts of the Phillies' championship run, totaling 87 homers and 53 steals while picking up 28 outfield assists from 2008-10.

Crawford is of a different stock. The first pick in the second round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft by the Rays, he was the second coming of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield in that he was a three-sport stud who chose baseball over a basketball scholarship to UCLA and football scholarship offers from USC, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida.

Then there is Beltre, whose gamble to accept a one-year Boston deal after a disappointing five-year tenure in Seattle paid off with a .321-28-102 season.

A fascinating element of this free-agent season is the agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association to alter not only its dates but also the manner in which it is conducted. You've heard about the reduction of former teams' exclusive negotiating window to five days from 15 -- that shuts at the end of the day on Saturday, compared to Nov. 19 last year -- and acceleration of the deadline to offer free agents arbitration to Nov. 23 (last year it was Dec. 1).

But less attention has been paid to the clause in that agreement that restricts "negotiations openly through the media." That would appear to be a limitation difficult to define, and to enforce.

Regardless, you will be hearing and reading mostly about Lee, whose free agency certainly presents an intriguing situation. It is widely assumed that the Yankees -- they have taken three losses in the past two postseasons to Lee, who has given them five runs in 24 innings -- will offer the biggest deal.

No one has snubbed the Yankees' top-dollar offer since Greg Maddux took $8 million less on a five-year deal to go from the Cubs to the Braves in 1993. An Arkansan and an iconoclast to boot, Lee might groove on snubbing the Big Apple to stay with the calmer Rangers. Conversely, for all of his individual postseason success, Lee still doesn't have a ring -- and he could conclude that the Yankees offer him the best chance to get one.

Lee might cast the biggest shadow, but there are many other compelling players on the market. Dunn is among the most consistent power hitters in baseball history, having hit 40 homers each season from 2005-08, then 38 each of the past two seasons. LaRoche hit 25 homers and drove in 100 runs before the D-backs declined his 2011 option. Konerko comes off arguably the best overall season of an accomplished career (.312-39-111).

Also available are Soriano's 45 saves and the 37 by Kevin Gregg, Carlos Pena's 144 homers the past four seasons and Victor Martinez's switch-playing (first base and catcher) and switch-hitting (.300 lifetime average) consistency. In the history department, you can have Thome's 589 homers, Hoffman's 601 saves or Stairs' 23 pinch-hit home runs.

The three bulls in this economy -- Lee, Crawford and Werth -- all set out looking for nine-figure deals. If they are all satisfied, it would match the total of $100 million contracts negotiated the past two offseasons, for the Yankees' CC Sabathia and Teixeira two years ago and for the Cardinals' Matt Holliday last offseason.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.