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Davidoff: Why Yankees didn't get Cliff Lee

Game 3 starter Cliff Lee in on Texas

Game 3 starter Cliff Lee in on Texas now, but the Yankees will be in hot pursuit of him in the offseason. (Oct. 17, 2010) Credit: AP

There are 750 baseball players good enough to qualify for major-league jobs each Opening Day. For the most part, you can divide those 750 men into three categories:

1. Current Yankees.

2. Players on other teams the Yankees want.

3. Players on other teams the Yankees don't want.

Cliff Lee, who will occupy center stage Monday night at Yankee Stadium, stands in a classification all his own. He is - for now, at least - someone the Yankees wanted quite badly but couldn't get.

On July 9, the Yankees thought they had acquired Lee, one of the game's best starting pitchers, in a trade with the Mariners. Instead, the agreement fell apart. Seattle dealt Lee to the Rangers, changing the face of the baseball landscape for 2010.

Therefore, the Yankees hope that Monday night - when Lee will start American League Championship Series Game 3 for the Rangers against the Yankees' Andy Pettitte - represents the final time Lee tries to defeat them rather than working to defeat other clubs while in a Yankees uniform.

Lee, playing for his fourth team in a two-season span, has only enhanced his elite reputation as a postseason warrior. He beat Tampa Bay twice in the Division Series, including the do-or-die Game 5 at Tropicana Field. He has faced the Yankees seven times since the start of the 2009 season, including twice for Philadelphia in last year's World Series, and holds a 5-1 record with a 2.98 ERA, striking out 40 and walking 12 in 511/3 innings.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman holds a "basic principle," as he puts it, when impending free agents become available on the trade market. He doesn't like committing what amounts to a double premium: 1) Giving up a significant package of young talent in a trade, and 2) Paying top price to retain the player through his free-agent years, which you feel compelled to do in order to justify the trade in the first place.

That's partly why Cashman passed on dealing for Minnesota's Johan Santana in the 2007-08 offseason, and again when Cleveland made CC Sabathia available during the 2008 season.

But when the Phillies traded Lee to Seattle last December, and when the Mariners tripped out of the gate to open the season, Cashman overlooked that principle.

"Our system was not prepared to do a deal like the Santana deal and still be competitive," Cashman said. "I felt, this time around, Lee would make a huge difference for anybody. And at the same time, our system was one of the best in baseball."

The Yankees' starting rotation was performing very well when Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik signaled that he was ready to deal Lee. "At that time, we didn't have a need for him," Cashman said. "But he was out there."

On the evening of July 8, Cashman agreed in principle to trade stud catching prospect Jesus Montero, second baseman David Adams and pitcher Zach McAllister to Seattle for Lee. The Yankees thought they had their man, whom they planned to pursue when he became a free agent anyway. Acquiring him at this point meant they wouldn't have to give up a 2011 first-round draft pick to sign him.

They didn't plan to make any immediate trades to create room for Lee in their rotation, but they were confident that Philadelphia would be interested in trading young players for Javier Vazquez, a move that would help the Yankees with payroll management and farm-system replenishment. A trade of Vazquez for Jayson Werth didn't interest the Yankees and was never discussed.

In Texas, meanwhile, the Rangers had stayed in the loop on Lee. A temporary ward of Major League Baseball because of owner Tom Hicks' bankruptcy, they knew they would have to be creative with the financing in order to land the lefty.

When news broke on July 9 that the Yankees were on the verge of getting Lee, the Rangers thought they likely had fallen short. But they didn't give up.

"We always thought we were in second place," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "But we knew what we had to do to have the winning bid."

Above all, it appeared, Seattle wanted young Texas first baseman Justin Smoak. When the Mariners raised questions about Adams, who was out with an ankle injury, that gave the Rangers the opening they needed.

As Cashman refused to replace Adams with infielder Eduardo Nuñez or pitcher Ivan Nova, Daniels relented on Smoak. Said Daniels: "Justin Smoak's a tremendous young player, and that was a challenge."

The final deal sent Smoak and minor-leaguers Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matthew Lawson to the Mariners for Lee, reliever Mark Lowe and $2.25 million to help pay the $4 million Lee still was owed.

"It was more than I was willing to do," Cashman said. "And that's why it didn't get done."

In the immediacy of the day's activities, Cashman and the Yankees were miffed at the Mariners. They felt as if Seattle had kept engaging other clubs even after reaching an agreement in principle with the Yankees.

Such bad blood usually dissipates quickly, however. Cashman said he has spoken with Zduriencik since then and holds no hard feelings. Oddly, the trade ultimately produced tension between the Mariners and Rangers because Seattle wasn't aware of Lueke's criminal history - he faced felony charges in a rape and sodomy case in which he later pleaded no contest to a lesser charge - and had to deal with the subsequent embarrassment of its publication.

The Rangers and Yankees figure to be the top bidders for Lee's services this winter, with the Yankees heavily favored to prevail in that battle.

At the moment, however, the Rangers arguably own the edge in this ALCS because they have Lee and the Yankees don't.

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