Craftsman left-hander Cliff Lee returned to Safeco Field this weekend for the first time in 2011. The Mariners knew more than a year ago if Lee were to be in the park this season, it would be as a visitor.
Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik talked with Lees agent, Darek Braunecker, before spring training in 2010 following Seattle’s offseason trade for his client. Braunecker presented a simple stance about the Mariners prize: Lee had earned the right to become a free agent and will when the season ends.
Seattle was not shut out, rather an unlikely bidder. At the very least, Mariners Chairman Howard Lincoln would have to search between the couch cushions to make a run at Lee after the 2010 season. The well-heeled Phillies, Yankees, Rangers and Red Sox were expected to be in pursuit. The cost would be high.
Despite the pre-spring training indications, Zduriencik chatted up Braunecker again after Lee routinely appeared an international man of leisure while on the mound early in 2010. Precision deliveries became repeated 300-foot outs in spacious Safeco Field. The concern about an abdominal injury that caused Lee to miss April was squelched. They discussed, but did not negotiate.
Once’ the 2010 season was in tatters, the idea of a 2011 triumverate of Lee, Michael Pineda and Felix Hernandez was as likely as a blonde, loco hatman and smirking cat. Lee was traded along with reliever Mark Lowe July 9 to Texas in return for four prospects.
Justin Smoak was the marquee return for Lee, along with starter Blake Beavan, reliever Josh Lueke and castoff Matthew Lawson. Reasons: Team record, Lee’s pending free agency and Pineda doing admirable farm work.
Its never easy to trade anybody thats a star-quality type player, Zduriencik told Sportspress Northwest Saturday. I think the inevitable part was that we didnt think he was going to re-sign.
It was the right thing to do. I wish he was here. He isnt. It would be nice to have him with Pineda.
It could also be sunny in Seattle for consecutive days this summer. Unfortunately, we cant have it all.
Lee, and exceptionally named Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, thought he was going to New York. When Lee was sent to the Rangers, Cashman growled through back channels in the media. It was a petulant reaction to being leveraged.
I wouldnt get into any of that, Zduriencik said. I have enough respect for general managers that the talks we have on the phone, between each other, behind closed doors should stay there. And if someone goes out and says things publicly, then thats not very professional in my opinion.
Its bizarre that a pitcher as skilled as Lee has endured a swerving career. Two years after going 18-5 for Cleveland in 2005, he was shipped to Triple-A Buffalo by now Mariners manager Eric Wedge.
He was just struggling, Wedge said.
Lees ERA swelled to 6.29 that year in Cleveland, and the Indians were in the race. Lee was extracted from the rotation.
He went to Triple-A Buffalo, where starting pitchers often doubled as first base coaches during their non-pitching days. Lee, days after being in the majors, worked a stop watch in western New York, advising first base runners on pitcher delivery times and lead length.
Process and examination like that in Buffalo actually fit Lee, who Saturday was in his usual off-day position, tethered to his iPad. He charts pitching information and plays games on it. Hes a skilled chess player. Function and nuance are his things. But it got away from him in 2007.
I understood the whole thing, Lee said. (Wedge) explained to me what was going on. I didnt necessarily have to like it or agree with it.
It was a tough time for me, but, whatever. Im glad it happened at this point. I think it made me better in the long run.
The next year, he was 22-3 and won the American League Cy Young Award. Must have been that Buffalo water.
Yet the trade carousel started in 2009. He went from Cleveland to Philadelphia. Then the Mariners traded for him during the offseason, sending Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez to the Phillies. Aumont and Ramirez are currently in Double-A purgatory. Gillies is in Single-A, not happening.
Zdurienciks contorting of the situation is fast-tracking toward a coup. Pinedas numbers (7 wins, 2.64 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, .202 BAA) are superior to Lees (7 wins, 3.12 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, .242). Smoak provides power the club is so desperate for. Starter Beavan and reliever Lueke are putting together solid years in Triple-A Tacoma. The flipping of Lee could produce a decade of power at first base, a contributor at the back end of the rotation and sustenance in the bullpen.
As for Lee, he appears on track for his third consecutive World Series. He took a five-year, $120 million deal (with a sixth-year vesting option that could bump it to $135 million) from the Phillies, essentially telling the Rangers and Yankees to hit the bricks. Thats why he stood in Phillies red behind the batting cage Saturday afternoon at Safeco Field hobnobbing with Erik Bedard and other Mariners.
Philadelphia has the best record and playoff rotation in baseball. In addition, it can produce four consecutive skilled left-handers to menace at the top of the order. And that ‘ol kook Charlie Manuel can match up out of the bullpen. It’s on the way to another World Series appearance.
The Lee deal has become a rare win-win. Lee worked the system. Zduriencik worked the Yankees. Theyre in separate places, both better for it.