SEATTLE - Cliff Lee was a Yankee . . . until suddenly he wasn't. Instead, the Seattle ace headed for the Rangers in a deal that rocked the baseball world and left the Yankees steamed.
The Mariners sent Lee to Texas for a package centered around first baseman Justin Smoak Friday afternoon. But the Yankees began the day thinking they had Lee - whom they still seem likely to sign as a free agent in the offseason - for a package featuring three minor-leaguers: catcher Jesus Montero, infielder David Adams and pitcher Zach McAllister.
Lee also began the day thinking he was headed to the Yankees. CC Sabathia, Lee's close friend from their days together in Cleveland, said before Friday night's game at Safeco Field that his wife and Lee's wife began talking Friday about homes in the New York area.
The deal began to fall apart when the Mariners grew nervous about Adams' ankle injury and Texas sweetened its offer to include Smoak. The concern about Adams' injury rankled the Yankees. "Ever heard of someone not coming back from an ankle sprain?'' one source said.
The Yankees were prepared to replace Adams with another player, but in the meantime, the Mariners went back to the Rangers, a source said, and a deal was consummated.
The Mariners wanted a resolution by Friday night, when Lee was scheduled to pitch for Seattle against the Yankees.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik disputed that a deal with the Yankees had been reached. "There were points in time where I thought some of the other clubs had very entertaining deals on the table," he said. "I think I made it perfectly clear to most of the people I talked to that when I got the deal we wanted, we were going to do the deal. I wasn't going to take a deal and start shopping it. When we got what we wanted, we were doing the deal. Texas did what we wanted."
The Mariners will send the cash-strapped Rangers $2.5 million to help pay for the roughly $4 million left on Lee's deal.
The Rangers filed for bankruptcy in May and received loans from MLB to cover their operating expenses. Some in the industry questioned how the Rangers are paying for the increase in their budget, but MLB's approval of the deal indicates it's not a pressing issue. Additionally, a person in the loop confirmed that the Lee expenditure fell within the Rangers' budget. That person said Lee's addition should increase home attendance for Texas, further balancing the budget.
The centerpiece of the Yankees' package would have been Montero, rated by some as the top hitting prospect in baseball. Doubts persist about whether he can catch in the major leagues, but there is little doubt that the 20-year-old can hit well enough to carry any position.
Although the Yankees have been very satisfied with their starting rotation, they have always loved Lee, 31. He has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season, with an 8-3 record, a 2.34 ERA, 89 strikeouts and six walks in 1032/3 innings and five complete games.
Now Lee is with his fourth team in less than 12 months, having been dealt by the Indians to the Phillies last July 29, to the Mariners in the offseason and now to the Rangers. Don't be surprised to see him on the move again this offseason, this time to a place of his choosing - very possibly the Yankees.
"This offseason, I'm going to be a free agent, so there's going to be some decisions to make there," he said. "For now, I think this is the last time. It's been a whirlwind year and a half or so, but it's been a fun ride. Every step of the way is a different experience, something that has helped me as a player and a person."