If you're looking for hints on Seattle pitcher Cliff Lee's next destination, they won't be coming from the horse's mouth. Right around the time Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was parrying with senators on Capitol Hill last week, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was at Yankee Stadium dodging and weaving queries about Lee, the team's big trade commodity. For two straight days, Zduriencik staged a skillful, noncommittal performance, bereft of any kind of breadcrumb trail.
Zduriencik's stock answer is that the Mariners have to focus on "winning ballgames." He also declines to engage in hypotheticals about the merits of trading Lee versus the alternate approach of keeping him, offering him salary arbitration in December, and taking the draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere.
"Any general manager has to look at the immediate, and you also have a responsibility to see the big picture," Zduriencik said. "My job is no different than the other 29 general managers'."
Hey, if he's hesitant to speculate, a lot of people are happy to do it for him.
Circumstances have coalesced to produce a festival of rumor-mongering in Seattle. The Mariners, a trendy American League West pick until spring training began and it became clear they couldn't hit, buried themselves with an 8-19 May and need to go 47-33 the rest of the way to finish .500. Lee is the classic battle-tested veteran who can help take a team deep into October. He's pitching incredibly well, with 89 strikeouts and six walks, and has about $4 million due him the rest of the way. That's less money than the Oakland A's owe Ben Sheets the rest of this season.
As Lee keeps churning out quality starts, his teammates stand behind him in the field and marvel at his efficiency.
"Cliff has one speed and one mode, and that's to get out there and throw the ball," Seattle shortstop Jack Wilson said. "It's his mound and his game until someone tells him it's not. He has so much fun, it's like he's playing Little League. He's on the mound and you think, 'Gosh, this guy has really wanted to play for the last four days, and now he gets a chance.'"
Although Lee is congenial at each new stop on the schedule, he's more comfortable talking about old friends on the Phillies or events back home in Arkansas than his professional future, because he knows his fate is in the Mariners' hands. The only sure thing is, he's not letting the uncertainty affect his job performance.
"I think people put way too much emphasis on things swirling around players," Seattle closer David Aardsma said. "What's really swirling around him? The reporters and TV people are the only ones talking about it. If he's not thinking about what you guys are talking about -- if he's not reading it -- then he doesn't care."
Sources say the Mets are focused more on Lee than an innings-eater in the Jake Westbrook mold. The Phillies have also come up in speculation, but with Chase Utley and Placido Polanco on the disabled list, they might have to focus on infield help. And if the Phillies do pursue a starter, it's more likely to be Arizona's Dan Haren than Lee. Haren is signed for two more years at $29 million guaranteed, while Lee is expected to seek a six-year deal in free agency. That long-term commitment is what prompted the Phillies to move him in the first place.
The Yankees covet Lee but might choose to wait and pursue him in the offseason. Lee would also look great in Cincinnati, but with Edinson Volquez about to return from Tommy John surgery, does GM Walt Jocketty really need to trade first baseman Yonder Alonso and a pitching prospect for two months' worth of Lee? That leaves the Angels and Dodgers among the other possible landing sites, with the Cubs a candidate to jump into the fray this winter.
As Zduriencik ponders his options, he might want to bone up on recent Cleveland Indians history for a primer on how this could play out:
• Two years ago, CC Sabathia was the hot July trade commodity, and Indians GM Mark Shapiro sent him to Milwaukee for outfielders Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley and pitchers Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson. LaPorta and Brantley are still trying to establish themselves in Cleveland, and Bryson has a staggering 55 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings in Class A this season. The Indians think he can be an effective big league setup man one day if he stays healthy.
• Last July, the Indians traded Lee to Philadelphia for a package consisting of Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald and Lou Marson. Carrasco is 7-3 with a 4.38 ERA for Triple-A Columbus. Marson is hitting .185 between the International League and the big club. Donald looks like a serviceable utility player, and Knapp hasn't pitched this year after undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery in September.
The lesson here: It's hard to spin two months of any player into gold, no matter how big the hype. Lee has already been traded twice in the past year, and each time he gets moved, the acquiring club is getting less time from him.
"If Jack is insistent on absolutely killing it, there's a good chance Lee is still with them on Aug. 1," an AL general manager said. "I don't think it's going to be anything close to [the prospects] that some people are talking about."
Another AL executive said that Zduriencik might have to explore three-way trades if he wants to get the maximum haul for Lee.
"It's been more quantity over quality in the last two deals," the official said. "I'm sure Jack is going for a premium package of guys, but the market might not bear that right now."
Oddly enough, Cleveland has fared much better in seemingly peripheral deals. The Tribe stole Shin-Soo Choo from Seattle for Ben Broussard, snagged Asdrubal Cabrera from the Mariners for Eduardo Perez in 2006, and acquired budding catching star Carlos Santana from the Dodgers for Casey Blake in July 2008.
The Mariners rank 29th in the majors with a .349 slugging percentage, so it's clear they need an injection of thump. Zduriencik drafted Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Corey Hart, among others, during his previous tenure in Milwaukee, and he says that power "is going to be a point of emphasis as we move forward as an organization."
But young power hitters usually come with growing pains: Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez and Florida's Mike Stanton have combined for 62 strikeouts in 148 at-bats this year, and LaPorta is still trying to establish himself in Cleveland. Catcher Wilson Ramos, the perceived centerpiece of a Twins trade package, is hitting .208 with a .244 on base percentage for Minnesota's Triple-A club in Rochester. Think he's ready to tear it up in the majors?
If Jack [Zduriencik] is insistent on absolutely killing it, there's a good chance Lee is still with them on Aug. 1. I don't think it's going to be anything close to [the prospects] that some people are talking about.
”-- An AL executive
"Oftentimes, when a young player gets [to the big leagues], he's not going to be producing for a year or two," Zduriencik said, speaking in general terms.
There's also a fine line between cold, hard self-analysis and overreacting. The Mariners have their issues, but an outfield of Ichiro Suzuki, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders looks pretty good moving forward. Felix Hernandez is under contract through 2014. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas have shown enough to indicate they can compete for spots at the back end of the rotation. Chone Figgins is a better player than the imposter who's been taking his at-bats in the first half, and the Mariners have shown some signs of life since reacquiring Russell Branyan by trade from Cleveland last week.
"At least he gives them the threat of a home run in the middle of the order," one baseball insider said.
Of course, Lee isn't the only Seattle player whose name is being bandied about in speculation. He's joined by infielder Jose Lopez and Aardsma, who has taken a step back this year after a breakthrough 2009 season. Aardsma has an 0-5 record and a 5.13 ERA to go with his 16 saves.
After stops in San Francisco, Chicago (with both the White Sox and Cubs), Boston and Seattle, Aardsma is one worldly veteran at age 28. Like Lee, he's adept at tuning out the static.
"I've been with five different teams, so I'm not really worried about being traded," Aardsma said. "I hope it doesn't happen, because I love it here. But it's their decision, and I'll make the best of it."
Making the best of things has become a team bonding activity in Seattle this season.
"You have to come to terms with it," Aardsma said. "If we didn't want to be in this situation, we should have played better."