With CC Sabathia safely ensconced in a huge pile of money and checking out prices in the New York real estate market, the priciest free agent remaining is first baseman Mark Teixeira. While I value Teixeira more highly than some, and certainly more highly than I do Sabathia, the big pitcher’s seven-year, $161 million contract seems like a reasonable estimate for how Teixeira will do in the market. He may get-and deserve-more, or he may take less, but that’s the range we’re talking about.

We do seem to be having some trouble figuring out who’ll be signing the big checks, though. After what seemed like most of the American League dropping in on him over the past week, the race now seems to be between teams trying to get as far away as possible. Whether negotiating tactic, fear of a big number, or just a rush home for the holidays, interest in Teixeira has waned as quickly as it waxed, leaving him with perhaps just a couple of suitors as Santa puts away some carbs and sorts through the bubble teams trying to make the “Nice” list for 2008.

This is a strange turn of events. Teixeira is the top of the market, and not in the way that Alfonso Soriano and Barry Zito were as above-average players who just happened to be free agents at the right time. Teixeira is the first-base equivalent of Carlos Beltran, a complete player who hits and fields, is available with a number of years left at his peak, and can be expected to decline gradually when the time comes. The trades that split Teixeira’s last two seasons may have cost him two Gold Glove Awards, and having that hardware would help reinforce that Teixeira is a two-way player worth a win or two per year on defense alone.

It’s that defensive value that has had me writing that Teixeira should be the Yankees‘ top priority this season. With his bat and glove, he would be the perfect replacement for Jason Giambi; few teams have suffered such poor defense at first base. Moreover, Teixeira’s anticipated $22-24 million salary would effectively replace Giambi, giving the team an upgrade at minimal added payroll. The Yankees, however, have focused on upgrading their pitching.

The Red Sox publicly backed away from Teixeira yesterday, which seems more like a negotiating tactic than anything else. Then again, they are the one team that doesn’t have an open slot for Teixeira. Were they to sign him, they would have to trade one of Kevin Youkilis or Mike Lowell, and while dealing the latter is attractive, it’s hard to find a market for a 34- or 35-year-old owed $26 million who was last seen walking off the post-season stage with a bad hip. Also, because the Sox have a superior first baseman in Youkilis, they wouldn’t get quite the benefit that other teams would; in fact, signing Teixeira would probably weaken their defense slightly, by forcing Youkilis to third and Lowell off of the team.

The wild card in this has been the Nationals, who were apparently attempting to trade on Teixeira’s ties to the region to make him the centerpiece of their run at becoming relevant. The notion isn’t a terrible one-if you’re going to make a signing like that, sign the best guy available, not Gil Meche. On the other hand, the Nats have talent along the left side of the defensive spectrum, and their talent base is so bad that adding Teixeira won’t even be enough to get them to .500. Nor do they have much talent on the horizon. By the time they can win, Teixeira will be moving into his decline phase. Were this 2010, perhaps this move would have made sense for them. It makes less sense for Teixeira, who will get paid no matter where he goes, and would have a better shot at the postseason in most other locales.

Not far from the Nationals, however, are the Orioles. They haven’t been relevant in a long time, either, but they’re getting there, and they’re closer to Teixeira’s Maryland roots. Like the Nationals, they have plenty of money to spend, and revenue upside due to a city with a great baseball tradition and a popular ballpark that would fill up again should a successful team ever play in it. They have an opening at first base-Kevin Millar, free agent, got most of the time there in 2008-and would see both an offensive and defensive bounce from mixing in Teixeira.

The biggest reason to like the idea of the Orioles signing Teixeira, though, is that this team is much, much closer to something special than people realize. Nick Markakis is a star. Adam Jones is, loosely speaking, Vernon Wells with better defense and less power. Matt Wieters is the best prospect in baseball, and will be the best catcher in the AL by the end of 2010. Brian Matusz was the fourth pick in last year’s draft and could be in Camden Yards by September, and a number two starter a year after that. The Orioles have put together a championship-caliber core, and Teixeira would be another piece in that, giving them five players more than capable of being the five best players on a great team. A lineup core of Jones/Markakis/Teixeira/Weiters might not be one of the best in the league next year, but in 2010 or 2011? That’s a group of players who could combine for 35 WARP two years out. You win championships with that kind of core. Add in the fifth pick in this year’s draft, and it’s not hard to get excited about the Andy MacPhail Era in Baltimore.

It’s very rare that you could suggest a 68-93 team make a seven- or eight-year commitment to a 29-year-old first baseman. This player, and this team, makes that kind of decision sensible. Teixeira is a player who would not be blocking anyone, would provide value on offense and defense, would give the Orioles the power threat their future teams may lack, and who is likely to sustain his value past his peak in a way that allows him to still be part of a core when the Orioles are contending. Remember, this is the American League East; you need to build towards 95 wins to have any realistic chance of post-season play. Adding Teixeira is a step in that direction.

The Orioles were all but declared out of the running earlier this week, so perhaps this won’t happen. That’s a shame, because it would be good for the game as well. Baseball is at its best when as many teams as possible are pushing towards a championship, and there’s something to be said for the value of tent-pole franchises being strong. The Orioles were a tent-pole franchise in the AL for a quarter-century, and if they can re-emerge with a core of great young players supplemented by a well-chosen free agent to compete with the nominal “big two” in the AL East, that’s a beautiful thing for the game.

The most likely scenario is that Teixeira re-signs with the Angels. They desperately need his kind of high-OBP, high-SLG bat, the kind they don’t have and tend not to develop. They appreciate defense, and are well aware of the runs he saves on that side of the ball. They have money to spend; even though they have some onerous contracts, Vladimir Guerrero is a free agent after this season, and they’ve sloughed off Garret Anderson‘s option as well, while also allowing Francisco Rodriguez to leave. They’re fending off a challenge from the A’s, and can see the Rangers developing on the horizon, so they’re motivated to win in the short term. As a potential playoff team, the marginal revenues created by the additional wins they could add in signing Teixeira are high, perhaps enough to recoup their investment.

Everything points to the Angels having every incentive to make the highest offer on Teixeira, and if they sign him, it will a very strong baseball move from one of the game’s better franchises. If the Orioles can pull this off, however, it could be a turning point for an organization that, in its way, was the Angels of the 1970s and ’80s.