MILWAUKEE -- The Texas Rangers find themselves in the middle of the sweepstakes for the top free-agent starting pitcher for a second consecutive off-season, and they have given C.J. Wilson's agent every indication that they plan to be serious players for the left-hander.
Bob Garber dined Tuesday evening with Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine and director of baseball operations Matt Vinnola in what Garber called a "productive meeting."
The process is still in its early stages, and Garber isn't giving away any state secrets that have popped up so far during the annual end-of-year general managers meetings.
It's become clear Wilson doesn't want to leave the Rangers but is prepared to do so if they don't make the right offer. The market is projected to be a minimum of five years, and a team that offers six could win the bidding.
The Rangers haven't been comfortable signing pitchers to long-term contracts and have considered life without Wilson.
It seems that it would begin with closer Neftali Feliz, but the Rangers haven't given up on their pursuit of Wilson.
"They showed significant interest in trying to bring C.J. back and are willing to treat him as another other team would in the free-agent process," Garber said.
"They're going to be more aggressive than I thought. I assumed they were going to sit on the back burner. Now, it seems like they're putting him on the front burner."
Garber said that he has not fielded any offers for Wilson. Their plan is to trim the field of potential landing spots, which also includes Anaheim, New York and Miami, to five or six before getting into serious negotiations leading up to the winter meetings Dec. 5-8 in Dallas.
The Rangers, who philosophically are opposed to deals that lengthy for a starting pitcher, could be out if the bidding hits six years. Just last year, team president Nolan Ryan was uncomfortable offering more than a five-year contract to Cliff Lee.
"We recognize it's highly infrequent that a player actually signs for his fair market value if there's an open market and there's a demand for the player," Levine said.
"We would be less inclined to react to a competitor in our division or otherwise if that meant straying from what we felt would preclude us from being able to put together a competitive team. All of the pieces of the puzzle have to work together. There are different ways of achieving that."
Beyond the potential the Rangers see in Feliz as a starter, they also see value. He isn't eligible for arbitration until next season, meaning that he would make just above the league minimum of $414,500 in 2012, and is under club control through 2015.
The Rangers hope to determine Feliz's 2012 role around the winter meetings, whether or not Wilson has decided his future, and they plan to stick with it rather than yo-yoing as they did last spring. They haven't ruled out having Feliz join Wilson in the rotation should he re-sign.
The free-agent marketplace is deep with closers, but Wilson is their top off-season priority. Ownership has shown a willingness to add payroll to keep the Rangers atop the AL, but they have other players who are due raises or are candidates for extensions.
"They are willing to increase it in the name of staying very competitive at the major-league level," Levine said. "The reality is that just going through the arbitration process and long-term contracts just to retain our team, our payroll is going to go up significantly."
A bidding war for Wilson would also push the payroll, but his agent is under the impression that the Rangers are prepared for a fight.