If Cliff Lee winds up being an active Mariner for just three months or fewer it will still have been long enough to make a hugely positive impression.
While trade winds swirl around Lee, he continues to give strong pitching performances every fifth day. He remains invested in his teammates, even as a potential short-timer, as evidenced by his role in calling a team meeting last weekend in San Diego. And his preparation and work habits have been role models for other pitchers on the team.
“Cliff is extraordinary,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said in St. Louis. “I’m happy as heck we’ve had a chance to bring him into Seattle. This guy is a pure, top-of-the-rotation starter. He’s everything I thought we were going to get. Cliff is a pretty special guy, as a person as well as a pitcher.”
But Lee’s time remaining with the Mariners could be measured in weeks, if not days. With the Mariners falling far off the pace in the American League West, Lee is an obvious trade chip, particularly since he is eligible for free agency after the season. There are no indications of any movement toward a contract extension.
Zduriencik refuses to concede the Mariners are looking to deal Lee. That is another way of saying he won’t concede the Mariners are out of playoff contention, despite being 16 games under .500 and 121/2 games out of first place.
But he’s realistic enough to know he can’t keep saying that forever. Not with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline growing closer and the Mariners continuing to struggle.
“It really depends on how we play in the next 10 days to two weeks,” Zduriencik said. “That determines a whole lot of things about this ballclub. Our focus right now is to fight our way back into this thing and see what happens.”
Zduriencik said GMs from other clubs have begun calling to feel him out about Lee.
“There are always calls,” he said. “Everyone is very polite. They realize we haven’t played how we’d like to have played. They know where we are in the standings. Guys are like, ‘If you ever get to a point in time you want to talk, give me a call.’
“But that’s not where we’re at right now. Our focus is to get back in this thing. If we have a good week, and clubs ahead of us have a bad week, all of a sudden things turn around a little bit. I don’t think anybody in our locker room has given up. It’s an uphill struggle, but no one’s thrown in the white flag yet.”
Lee knows the score. He went through virtually the same thing last year with a struggling Cleveland team, and was eventually traded to the Phillies on July 29 for pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, shortstop Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson.
The trade rumors, Lee said in St. Louis, “are totally out of my control. It could happen at any time, but for right now I’m a Mariner, so I’m going to do everything I can to help this team win.”
Standings aside, Lee said he has enjoyed his brief time as a Mariner.
“I mean, these are good guys,” he said. “It’s a good organization. Seattle’s a great town. It’s been a good experience.