Lee's impact still felt by Rangers
Acquisition helped club earn World Series berth and was turning point for franchise
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A little over a year ago, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels was feverishly punching keys on his Blackberry late Thursday night. Daniels was keeping contact with Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, trying to figure out a combination of players that might entice the Mariners to ship ace Cliff Lee, the top player on the trade market, to the Rangers.
By Friday afternoon, Daniels was able to get the deal done. And by October, it transformed the Rangers' season as Lee helped lead the organization to its first World Series.
“"It was a watershed moment for the franchise," assistant general manager Thad Levine said this week. "We thought we had a talented team that was very capable of winning the West, but we felt that in order to excel in the playoffs that he was going to be a vital piece. He proved to be just that."
The trade was that first time where we could part with some of those prospects that we worked so hard to stockpile.” -- Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine
But in the hours leading up to the trade, the vast majority of Daniels' baseball operations team did not want to part with switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, one of the club's top prospects who was getting a taste of the big leagues. So they spent days going through a host of different options that did not include the young slugger.
"To be completely candid with you, we only put him in the deal when we felt 1,000 percent sure we couldn't get a deal without putting him in there," Levine said. "We were committed to and did effectively exhaust every option we could to avoid that."
The Mariners weren't budging. They explored options from other teams and had a package from the Yankees that they liked. And they were ready to make that deal on Friday, July 9.
There was little doubt that Lee was leaving Seattle.
"We knew some of what was going on and I told Cliff and Kristen to pack their bags," Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker said. "They were going somewhere. We thought it was New York."
So did Daniels, Levine and the Rangers' staff. The Yankees' prospect package included highly touted catching prospect Jesus Montero. Reports surfaced Friday morning that the two sides were closing in on a deal. If the Rangers wanted Lee, they had to step up their offer.
"We had a choice to make: Are we putting Smoak in the deal or not?" Levine said.
The Rangers decided Lee's impact was worth the loss of a player they felt could be a long-term starter in the league and a guy they'd have to see in their own division for the foreseeable future.
As part of the negotiations, the Rangers wanted Seattle reliever Mark Lowe added to the trade because of the secondary pieces the Mariners sought. At the time, Lowe was in the early stages of recovery from back surgery and was going to cost something in arbitration after the season.
"That's how you get a guy that can throw 98 mph," Daniels said. "If he's throwing at the major league level at that time, you may not get him."
Daniels completed the deal and went into manager Ron Washington's office to inform him that he had a new No. 1 starter on his staff.
"I was surprised," Washington said. "The Yankees were in the bidding, and when you're in the bidding with the New York Yankees, you don't usually win. He walked in and said, 'I've got some good news and I've got some bad news.' He said, 'We got Cliff Lee, but had to give up Justin Smoak.' I was very excited."
Washington then called a team meeting and told the club that the trade was official. There were cheers, and several players immediately started to glance at their schedules to see which teams Lee would be going up against.
Lee's impact was instant. The phones at the Rangers' ticket office rang as soon as Lee was announced as the next day's starter. And the club sold 14,300 walk-up tickets to Saturday's game against the Baltimore Orioles. Lee lost the game 6-0, but pitched a complete game, continuing his trend from previous stops in Philadelphia and Seattle of giving his bullpen a break.
He had an up-and-down regular season, fighting a balky back at one point. But when it mattered most in the ALDS against Tampa Bay (see Games 1 and 5 -- especially the complete-game masterpiece over David Price in Game 5) and in ALCS Game 3 against the Yankees, Lee was a dominant force who scared opposing hitters and vaulted the Rangers to heights never seen before in Arlington.
The fact that the club won the AL pennant makes the trade a good one from the Rangers' point of view, no matter what happens now. But it wasn't a bad deal for the Mariners, either. And the Rangers thought Seattle put itself in a good spot when they got Lee after the 2009 season.
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The four players Seattle got from Texas have yielded early dividends. Smoak is the club's present and future first baseman. The club traded infielder Matthew Lawson for Aaron Laffey, who has become one of the Mariners' top relievers. Starter Blake Beavan recently made his Seattle debut and gave up one run on three hits in seven innings in a win over San Diego. Reliever Josh Lueke, who created some PR headaches soon after the trade because of off-field issues, has spent most of his time at Triple-A.
Lee, of course, is now a member of the best rotation in baseball in Philadelphia. Lowe is starting to carve out a role as one of the Rangers' important late-inning setup relievers.
Both received AL championship rings in honor of the Rangers' run, one that would not have lasted as long if Daniels and his staff hadn't made the decision to include a very promising prospect in the deal. It was a signal, as well, that the Rangers were no longer simply selling off assets and hoping for next year. They were big-time players, as the Lee trade proved.
"I also think it was a turning point for our organization in that we were buyers," Levine said. "The trade was that first time where we could part with some of those prospects that we worked so hard to stockpile and that we had invested time in developing. We did it with the thought in mind that they would play instrumental roles for us in the big leagues and here was an opportunity to trade guys, even though we had to do it in our division where we'd see them play for years to come."
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.