ARLINGTON, Texas - Cliff Lee is suddenly in the starting rotation for the AL West-leading Texas Rangers, who pulled off a big deal despite bankruptcy proceedings and unsettled ownership.
The struggling Seattle Mariners sent the ace lefthander and reliever Mark Lowe to the Rangers yesterday for rookie first baseman Justin Smoak and three minor leaguers. Texas also receives cash as part of the deal for Lee, who can become a free agent after this season.
While the Rangers might have a hard time affording Lee long-term, they now have one of baseball's best pitchers on board for a serious run at their first playoff appearance since 1999.
"They've got a great team, they're in first place and I'm going to try and go there and do everything I can to help them head in the direction their heading," Lee said yesterday before flying from Seattle to Texas. "They're already in a good spot, have a great team and I just want to be one of the guys."
It was the third trade in less than a year for Lee, who was 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA in 13 starts for last-place Seattle. His first start for Texas could come tonight against Baltimore.
In the first major deal leading up to the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, the Rangers landed one of the most coveted players on the market despite financial constraints that made it uncertain if they could execute such a move.
"Everybody knows our situation. When we take on salary, we have to look at that and see if we can justify it within our budget," team president Nolan Ryan said. "As long as we stay within our budget, we don't really have restrictions on us to where we can't do things."
Considering that a judge in May approved a multimillion-dollar loan from Major League Baseball to keep the Rangers afloat during bankruptcy proceedings, there are sure to be those who question the trade.
"I'd guess they'll be some unnamed sources, but I don't expect a lot of phone calls," general manager Jon Daniels said when asked if he anticipated any backlash from other clubs.
The 31-year-old Lee has a $9 million salary this season and is expected to command a lucrative, multiyear deal in the offseason - unless Texas signs him to an extension before that.
"It's too early to speculate on something of that magnitude, with him not being here yet," said Ryan, who is part of a group with Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg trying to buy the team from Tom Hicks.
Lee spoke with Yankees ace and former Cleveland teammate CC Sabathia on Thursday night and both had reason to believe Lee might be traded to New York. Instead, he joins a different first-place team - and the Yankees avoid facing him.
Lee had been scheduled to pitch for Seattle against the Yankees last night. Once the deal was completed, David Pauley was given the assignment for the Mariners.
The 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner for the Indians, Lee was acquired by Seattle from the Phillies last December after the NL champions scored fellow ace Roy Halladay from Toronto.
Lee was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason outings last year for Philadelphia, including 2-0 in the World Series against the Yankees.
"It's kind of like what happened last year going to Philly," Lee said. "They had a six-game lead or so and that's a good place to be, and they got that without me having anything to do with it."
Texas went into last night 5 1/2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West, the largest lead in any of baseball's six divisions. The Angels have won five of the last six AL West titles.
"It won't be fun to face Cliff Lee like that, but we'll do what we have to do," Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter said.
Smoak is considered one of the top prospects in the majors, though the switch-hitter batted only .209 with eight homers and 34 RBIs in 70 games for the Rangers this season. Seattle also obtained righthanders Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, and infielder Matt Lawson.
The Mariners were expected to contend for the AL West title this season but quickly fell off the pace. They had lost four straight going into last night and were 16 games out.
"It was a pleasure to have [Lee] here. We all wish things would have gone a little better," Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik said. "We felt we were at the point where something had to be done for the long-term good of the organization."
Seattle's problems made Lee one of the biggest commodities available, and about a dozen teams were believed to have inquired about the pitcher.
"We got the best pitcher on the market. He'll add to what we already do, which is to play hard," said third baseman Michael Young, the Rangers' longest-tenured player in his 10th season. "We have a good team, but we got better."