NAPLES, Fla. – The Texas Rangers’ new approach to team building: If you can’t beat ’em, steal ’em.

With pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka officially out of the picture and Mark DeRosa headed for the Chicago Cubs, the Rangers are turning their attention to two key free agents from Oakland’s AL West championship team. The Rangers are courting left-hander Barry Zito and designated hitter Frank Thomas, major league sources said Tuesday.

Zito and Thomas have already phoned to congratulate new manager Ron Washington, who also came from Oakland, on getting the Texas job. Both said they would consider playing for the Rangers. The Rangers have also followed up.

The club has contacted agent Scott Boras about Zito. And a major league source said club officials met with Arn Tellem, who represents Thomas, Monday evening.

The A’s have long been willing to concede Zito’s departure, but have been trying to hammer out a two-year deal with Thomas. The Rangers have jumped into the picture.

“We have to walk a fine line of being aggressive without being stupid,” Rangers owner Tom Hicks said of the club’s approach to free agency. “I think there will be signings that turn out to be unwise.”

The Rangers bid $27 million for Matsuzaka’s negotiating rights and were prepared for a total investment of between $60 and $75 million. Major League Baseball announced Tuesday evening that Boston had won the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka. Though an official amount was not released, the winning bid was reportedly in $51.1 million.

It’s certainly conceivable the Rangers could apply the money earmarked for Matsuzaka to Zito. What isn’t so certain is how Zito’s value, already high in a thin free-agent market, will be impacted by the Matsuzaka bid and the contract that is expected to follow. Boston’s total investment in Matsuzaka is expected to exceed $75 million.

Zito has a Cy Young Award and 102 major league wins, but at 28 is two years older than Matsuzaka. He also has led the major leagues in pitches thrown over the last five seasons. His velocity has dropped from the low 90-mph range to 88-90. Though he is 11-1 with a 3.75 ERA in 15 career starts in Arlington, he is a flyball pitcher. With a drop in velocity, he could end up being a poor long-term fit for Texas.

The Rangers, however, have little leverage in the pitching market. They have multiple holes in their rotation, have few prospects ready to jump to the majors and have not found a very promising trade market.

To obtain pitching in a trade, the Rangers would probably

have to give up young pitching in exchange. The most intriguing name could be Colorado’s Jason Jennings, who can be a free agent after 2007. Colorado is trying to negotiate an extension for Jennings, who attended Mesquite Poteet and Baylor, but if that is unsuccessful, the Rockies might consider trading him.

Any offer for Jennings, who went 9-13 with a 3.78 ERA in 2006, would probably have to start with a young pitching prospect such as Edinson Volquez and also include a major league reliever. Lefty C.J. Wilson is interesting to several clubs.

Wilson could be of interest to Detroit, too. The Rangers and Tigers met to discuss needs Tuesday. Detroit needs left-handed relief and has a surplus of starting pitching. The Tigers aren’t willing to deal Jeremy Bonderman or Nate Robertson, but could be more willing to discuss Mike Maroth or Wilfredo Ledezma.

The Rangers lost DeRosa, who became one of the first beneficiaries of a strong seller’s market. DeRosa agreed to a three-year deal worth $13 million to become the Cubs’ regular second baseman. His salary in the last of those three years will be $5.5 million; the Rangers’ last offer to DeRosa was for a total of $5.5 million over two years.

The Rangers will receive a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s amateur draft as compensation for DeRosa.

(c) 2006, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-14-06 2226EST

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