- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Cliff Lee returned to the mound on Friday night with a dominant seven-inning performance, at a time when it's becoming clear that he will be the most coveted free agent pitcher on the market this fall.
The agent for the pitcher, Darek Braunecker, said Saturday afternoon that Lee is almost certainly destined for free agency at this point, rather than signing with the Seattle Mariners.
"We're five months away from free agency," said Braunecker, "so I think that's the most likely scenario at this point.
"We've not really had any significant discussions with Seattle. I wouldn't anticipate a deal [with the Mariners]."
Lee told The Associated Press on Saturday that he doesn't want to be distracted with contract talks during the season and was not aware of his agent's conversation.
"Basically during the season I want to focus on pitching and not worry about that stuff. That's more spring training and offseason type of stuff," Lee said. "During the season I want to worry about pitching and focus on getting opposing hitters out rather than contract status and that stuff."
Lee confirmed he hasn't been approached with anything.
"I don't know what to say about that," he said. "It's hard to comment."
Lee, 31, went 36-16 for the Indians and Phillies in 2008 and 2009, winning the AL Cy Young Award in '08 and then dominating in the postseason in '09, when he posted a 1.56 ERA in five starts.
The Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa is eligible for free agency in the fall, but he is currently injured, and it's unclear how robust the market will be for the left-hander.
Josh Beckett would have drawn interest as a free agent in the fall, but he re-signed with the Red Sox. Brandon Webb is eligible for free agency -- and he is on the disabled list, and nobody knows when he will pitch next.
So it appears that Lee will be the No. 1 starting pitcher available in the fall, and the target of competing bids.
"The way I look at it, there will be in excess of 15-plus clubs seeking a top-end of the rotation type of guy that will have the resources [to make a deal happen]," Braunecker said.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. The Associated Press contributed to this story.