PEORIA, Ariz. -- Cliff Lee might finally have found the right team for him. The Mariners and Lee are taking things slowly, but word is that if everything goes well and he likes his first foray in the Northwest, the Mariners will try hard to lock him up with a new contract. That's something neither of his past two teams (the Indians and Phillies) showed much interest in doing. Which seems either crazy or bad luck, or maybe a bit of both.
By all rights, Lee should have a big-league-sized chip on his talented left shoulder following two rejections he neither earned nor deserved. Lee received no contract offer at all from the Indians following his dominating 22-3 Cy Young season in 2008. Then one year later, after being the most overpowering pitching force in the 2009 postseason for the Phillies following his July trade from Cleveland, he was dealt yet again, this time on the very day he presented the Phillies a counteroffer to their preliminary three-year extension offer.
"I have no hard feelings,'' Lee said about the trade from Philadelphia to Seattle that originally shocked him (though he did have one complaint -- more on that later). "I really can't blame them for wanting Roy Halladay instead of me. He's the best pitcher in the game. I was the backup plan. If that fell through, I was going to be Plan B.''
Lee appears to be a bigger part of the plan in Seattle. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said there's "no doubt'' he'd love to envision Lee and Felix Hernandez leading the rotation for years to come. But for now he's allowing Lee to get acclimated.. "We'll let Cliff get comfortable and see what happens. He's going to have to want to stay,'' Zduriencik said. "Nobody's jumping the gun. He may love it here. And he may not love it here.''
"So far I like it a lot,'' Lee said. "Obviously, free agency is where you want to be as a player ... I'm not going to rule anything out.''
The guess here is that Lee finally finds a match in the Mariners after the small-market Indians decided against offering big bucks to Lee, and the Phillies never lost their long-term infatuation with Halladay. With Halladay unhappy in Toronto and known to want to come to the Phillies or Yankees, and the Blue Jays believed still somewhat hesitant to trade their superstar pitcher within the division, the Phillies correctly surmised that they were in the drivers seat for Halladay, the pitcher they loved best and who also wanted most to be there. So the Phillies' contractual offer to Lee -- what he described as "close'' to the $60-million, three-year extension they eventually gave Halladay -- was apparently only a prelude to the real negotiation between the Phillies and Halladay.
"It was kind of strange,'' Lee said. "I was willing to negotiate, to work something out. I thought we were in the process of doing that. In the middle of that, I got traded.''
While the Phillies had their sights set on Halladay, Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, was beginning a negotiation he hoped would keep Lee in Philadelphia. Along those lines, with Lee enjoying Philly and a year from free agency, Braunecker conceded to Phillies execs that they wouldn't shoot for a CC Sabathia-type deal, and he didn't press for an annual salary too far beyond what the Phillies were offering. But with Lee now only one season from free agency, Braunecker did make a case for a deal longer than three years, which he understood might be a question for Phillies people who generally have subscribed to legendary GM Pat Gillick's three-year max rule for pitchers, even great ones. Nonetheless, Braunecker said by phone that he still got the impression from the Phillies that they were amenable to such a scenario.
Of course, the Phillies had other ideas. GM Ruben Amaro unquestionably improved the Phillies' future by instead acquiring Halladay and simultaneously extending him for three years while dealing Lee in the complicated trade where Amaro dealt prospects to Toronto but acquired them from Seattle. Amaro fit the mega acquisition into their $140-million budget, though he's still taken some hits from other execs who wonder why he didn't try to squeeze Lee into the budget as well, and one wondered aloud why he didn't forego Danys Baez, trade Joe Blanton or move around money to ensure a "team for the ages.''
Anyway, while Amaro was doing his wheeling and dealing, Lee said he assumed he was the only one in negotiation with them. According to Lee and Braunecker, Braunecker received word from Phillies people that they indeed intended to try to sign him, then further word from Phillies people not to believe mounting news reports suggesting Halladay was on the verge of being acquired in a trade that would send Lee 3,000 miles away.
Regardless, at some point Braunecker became convinced the reports were accurate. Yet, he still presented a counteroffer just in case. That counteroffer came just before the initial reports were confirmed to Braunecker and Lee by the Phillies.
"That's the only thing that bothered me, being misled on the Halladay situation,'' Lee said. "But I understand. It's a business.''
Amaro doesn't wish to rehash the past. Amaro said, "Cliff Lee is a Mariner. I wish him well and will no longer answer questions about him.''
The business part of baseball could actually turn out to be a blessing for Lee, who came to Seattle for three top prospects and appears very much appreciated by Zduriencik, who at 59 is a rising new star himself. The second-year GM told Lee to look around first, and see whether he likes Seattle, which could be a culture shock for an Arkansan. Though, Lee has adapted well both to the Midwest and East, and friends say 1) he is so focused on baseball it doesn't matter where he is, and 2) if he does, he'll like the outdoorsy aspect of Seattle. Lee himself said Seattle was one of his favorite cities to visit in his years in Cleveland.
"We'll let Cliff get comfortable and see what happens. He's going to have to want to stay,'' said Zduriencik, who also tried to get Halladay last winter but was informed by then-Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi that Halladay didn't want to go to Seattle. "When I made the trade I was open to anything,'' Zduriencik said. "I like the idea of matching him with Felix Hernandez. Anytime you're talking about a guy like this, not a whole lot of thinking goes into it.''
Lee said he already likes the feel of the Mariners clubhouse, and he's throwing in camp and isn't limited by the minor surgery he had on his left foot last month. "So far, so good,'' he said. He's taking it slowly, just as Zduriencik advised. You'll excuse Lee if he doesn't grow too attached too soon.
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The Diamondbacks, fresh of their $51.25 million, six-year deal with rising star Justin Upton, have offered about $13.5 million over two years to slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds and are meeting with him Friday with hopes of making progress.
The sides are said to remain a bit apart, as Reynolds is seeking a deal similar to the $18-million, two-year deal Prince Fielder received to cover his first two arbitration years while the D-backs see Dan Uggla and his $13 million take during his first two arbitration years as the better comp. Reynolds' people pointed out in meetings that he has more all-around skills than Fielder, including baserunning ability and better defense. But while the D-backs like Reynolds, they point to Fielder's All-Star appearances and past MVP support.
Some figured Reynolds, a 16th-round draft choice who's yet to make $1 million in total, might want to jump at the security. But Reynolds said, "I'm happy to make a commitment, but arbitration isn't such a bad thing. I'm not looking to break the bank. But at the same time, I want a fair deal.''
Upton seems quite pleased with his deal, and he said his older brother B.J. is, too, even though he's to be paid $3 million by the Rays. "He's definitely happy for me,'' Justin Upton said. "With a little brother getting a contract it sets a little fire, which is a good thing.
The Upton deal is the second highest in Diamondbacks history, behind only the $52.4 million given to Randy Johnson, who won four straight Cy Young awards in the four years of that contract. The Diamondbacks have had decent luck with their big deals. Had they not locked up Dan Haren midway through the 2008 season, he'd be in his walk year. As it is, they have him under control through 2013.
• Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb was said to be "not sharp'' in his bullpen session Thursday. He actually used the word "stagnant.'' He's a bit behind schedule, and there's a good chance now that he'll open the season on the disabled list and miss perhaps the first couple weeks as he battles back after shoulder surgery. He had been penciled in to start the third game of the season, after Haren and Edwin Jackson, but manager A.J. Hinch might have to alter that plan now.
• Paul Lo Duca got some time at first base for the Rockies. He is said to be swinging well, and as a favorite of manager Jim Tracy, he can't be ruled out as a long-shot candidate to make the club.
• Ubaldo Jimenez hasn't officially been named Opening Day starter by Tracy but he will be.
• Still seems odd the Yankees worried about the health of Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, and yet replaced them with Nick Johnson. Johnson will miss his second straight game Friday with back stiffness.
• Chone Figgins took 20 pitches in his first two at-bats for the Mariners.
• The Rangers are looking or a utility infielder.
• Joe Mauer's agent, Ron Shapiro, arrived in Ft. Myers, Fla., to negotiate with the Twins. Not much is known about the talks, which are being done with a secretive cloak. One thing I did hear: "There's been no acrimony.'' That's good. It's believed Mauer seeks a 10-year deal but may settle for eight or nine.
• Lance Berkman is a nice guy, but he should pipe down about the Astros picking up his $15-million option or 2011. It never makes sense to pick up an option ahead of time, and who's to say he's a $15-million player anymore?
• The greatest positional class of free agents comes in two years, when star first basemen Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder are all eligible for agency.
• With Bob Melvin hired as a Mets scout, is it possible he's next in line for manager should the Mets falter?
• Kiko Calero should help the Mets. But some teams questioned whether he was healthy, even after his big year last season in Florida (1.95 ERA, 10.4 Ks per nine innings).
• Adam LaRoche said he's OK with taking a $6-million deal from Arizona after an early offer from the Giants that could have paid $17 million over two years. "My family loves Phoenix and I like playing at that stadium,'' he said. "San Francisco was not a place first on my list, nothing against them.'' LaRoche said they did counter the Giants offer but that they never heard from San Francisco again. He also said it's clear the market changed between the Giants' offer (which he said included options and wasn't exactly the $17 million for two that's been reported because of that), and the one he took from Arizona. But he said, "I've got on regrets, no complaints.''