Five weeks after his trade to the Mariners, Cliff Lee arrived in Seattle for his meet-and-greet press conference, sounding like he has made peace with his new situation. When we talked to him via conference call from his Arkansas home the night of the deal, Lee sounded shell-shocked. Mostly because he was. He said at the time, and reiterated today, that he had fallen in love with Philadelphia and thought he was on the verge of working out a long-term contract with the Phillies. Instead, he was dealt to Seattle for three prospects — Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez.
“Through the media, it may have looked like I didn’t want to be traded to the Mariners,” he said. “But that wasn’t the case at all. It was just shock. I wasn’t prepared for that. I was thinking I was going to sign an extension with the Phillies. It caught me off guard. It’s reality now. It took a little while to set in, but I’m making the best of it. I think it’s going to be a good thing for me and my career. I think it’s going to work out for the better.”
The most important thing I got out of this press conference is that Lee said he was hoping to be wowed by the Mariners and Seattle; and if that happened, he’d be open to re-signing here. At this point, remember, Lee is essentially a rent-a-player, eligible for free agency after the season.
“I’m here to help this team win this year,” he said. “I haven’t been around my teammates. I don’t know what kind of atmosphere they’ve got. I need to get a feel for what’s going on. My mindset going into last year was, I’m going to play out my contract and go into free agency, but that changed when I went to Philadelphia. I got there, I liked how things were there, and I was willing to do it (sign an extension).
“Going into that situation, I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking of taking care of 2009. If my option gets picked up, great, I’ll play out the year and go into free agency. That was my plan. But I got on that team and I changed my mind. I wanted to be a part of that. I’m hoping I get here and I have those same types of feelings.”
Asked about his next contract, Lee joked, “I want a 10-year deal for about 200 billion. Nah, I don’t know.”
He was laughing — and so was Jack Zduriencik. I’m pretty sure that deal would put the Mariners over their payroll budget — for perpetuity.
Zduriencik noted that “maybe we romance him a bit, in a sense.” It could work, too, especially if this season goes well for the Mariners. Lee talked a lot about how much he liked Seattle as a visiting player, what a great park Safeco is to pitch in, and what a great defense the Mariners have. Those are all positives. If he clicks with his teammates and the Mariners contend, it might be an enticing notion for Lee to join Felix Hernandez as a lethal one-two punch into the future. On the down side, Lee noted more than once how far Seattle is from Arkansas.
“It’s hard for me to say how much I like it when I haven’t experienced it,” Lee said. “I’m hoping I love it. I’m hoping I get to spring training, I mesh well with the team, get to know all the guys, things click, we start winning, make the playoffs, win the World Series. That’s what I’m hoping. That’s my plan. Only time will tell on that.”
I asked Lee if he would be open to negotiating during the season if it clicked just the way he envisioned.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know. I would prefer not to have to do contract negotiations during the season. I want to concentrate on baseball. I don’t want to have to answer questions after every game – are you going to sign a contract? Dealing with all that. I want to focus on the game. If something like that were going to happen, I’d want it to happen before the season, and then once the season starts, it’s time to focus on baseball.
“In the offseason and spring training, that’s when you work on contract stuff, in my opinion. That’s the ideal situation, but obviously this situation is a little different. I don’t know. We’ll see. … Who knows what’s going to happen?”
Said Zduriencik to the same question: “I think you have to let that unfold. I would not say no to anything. I have not said no to anything up until this time. I think there’s a balance here. His representative will have something to say about that, too.
“What we’re hoping is, he rolls in here, falls in love with the city, and likes what’s going on with this organization, and he embraces it. I saw how excited he and Kristen (Lee’s wife) were up in my office. I was surprised, because I had heard things, I wasn’t sure how he was going to come in. I think as he digested this whole possibility. He said it best; these are his words, not mine: ‘This is a great park to pitch in, I’ve got a great defense behind me, and a 1-2 punch like we have.’ That’s going to be enticing to any pitcher.
“We’ll let it unfold. We’ll see what happens as we move forward. He hasn’t thrown a pitch for us yet, or experienced anything yet. As he does that, maybe it does kick off some things. It’s not going to be a distraction. Our focus is winning baseball games. Anything that would take place would be done quietly and privately, and if it looks like there’s a window for something to happen, we’ll judge it at that moment in time.”
Zduriencik said he tried hard to get Lee last July, prior to the trade deadline, but couldn’t work out a deal with Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro. Shapiro traded Lee instead to the Phillies, and he ended up pitching Game 1 of the World Series.
“”Mark and I had a couple of talks about it,” Zduriencik said. “He said he had a couple of other things going. We kept in touch, but he felt he was already committed to going in another direction. I thought what we had on the table was pretty good, but in his estimation, he wanted to go in another direction, and he did. I told Cliff in my office, don’t think this thing happened at the winter meetings. We were talking last July about trying to acquire you.”
Asked which deal would have been better for the Mariners, the one he proposed last July or the one he consummated in December, Zduriencik didn’t bite.
“I don’t think I want to answer that. We got the guy we really like. Good question, though.”
(Associated Press photo)