A battle between two aces in the Bronx

It is a three-card-monte game of aces. There is the one who won it all in October. There is the one who took less money to really get in the game. And there is the one who longs to be back in play.

The New York Yankees' ace, CC Sabathia, will face the Philadelphia Phillies' new ace, Roy Halladay, on Tuesday in as intriguing a game as you can get in June.

Nearly 1,000 miles away in St. Louis, the third ace, Cliff Lee, will wear a Seattle Mainers hat for a last-place team. Lee never wanted to leave the National League champion Phillies, and it makes you wonder if ultimately he is the wild card in the Yankees' 2010 season.

So during this World Series rematch, the out-of-town scoreboard bears watching, because the Mariners are going to decide soon if they can make a move out of the AL West basement and into contention. The Mariners are in St. Louis and Cincinnati this week, and they are racing against the clock, with the trade deadline just six weeks away.

"It is not even the All-Star break," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik told ESPNNewYork.com. "I think we almost have to go week to week. We have a good week and it changes everything."

Zduriencik declined to comment on whether the Mariners would be willing to trade Lee now, but it sounds as though he is holding out hope that his dream top-of-the-rotation of Lee and Felix Hernandez can get some help and still make a run in the AL West. If not, then the Trader Jack hat will go on.

If Zduriencik does deal Lee, then where does that leave the Yankees? At this point, the Yankees are just monitoring what the Mariners are doing. GM Brian Cashman's preference -- as it was with Sabathia -- is to keep his prospects and just sign a starter like Lee as a free agent.

Still, Cashman could decide to go for the kill shot and get an extra couple of months of Lee before signing him in the offseason to give the Yanks an unbelievably dominant rotation. It might be gluttonous, but it wouldn't be against the rules.

Interestingly, when Zduriencik lauded Lee -- who is 4-3 with a 2.88 ERA -- the first thing he mentioned was how Lee was a "World Series hero" and is a proven postseason pitcher.

"If I were selling Cliff Lee that is the first thing I would point out," a longtime baseball executive said.

Should the Yankees make a run at Lee to pair him with Sabathia at the top of their rotation, even though they already have five solid starters? Or should they wait until he is a free agent, keeping their prospects and praying he doesn't fall into the wrong hands come this October?

The Lee Saga won't get as much attention as the LeBron Watch during the next six weeks, but it is a mighty interesting undercard.

On Tuesday night in the Bronx, the man who replaced Lee with the Phillies will be the main event.

The Yankees know Halladay well, of course. He is 18-6 with a 2.84 ERA against the Yankees in 35 career starts. As good as Lee has become, most scouts think the Phillies got a better pitcher in Halladay, and they got him with a less-than-market-value, three-year, $60 million contract extension.

"He has a real combination of stuff and he can also think his way through situations," a scout said.

Another scout added, "He's a throwback. He's wants to finish the game."

Thus far, the general perception of Sabathia has been that he is not up to last year's form.

"He is much closer to his performance from last year than most people think," the first scout said.

After 13 starts, Sabathia is 6-3 with a 4.01 ERA. Last season, he was 5-4 with a 3.68 ERA after 13 starts.

Other numbers are nearly identical as well. Sabathia pitched 93 innings in his first 13 starts in 2009, compared to 85 1/3 so far this season. In 2010, he has allowed one more hit (77 vs. 76) . His strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly identical (67 K, 29 BB last year vs. 69 K, 27 BB this year). So maybe Sabathia is about to get really hot.

"He has been pretty good, but not as good as he could be," the second scout said.

Sabathia goes against Halladay on Tuesday night as his buddy and former Indians teammate, Lee, watches from afar, wondering if he will be dealt.

Lee is the one who could make all the Yankees' October dreams come true. And their nightmares, too.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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