Commentary

Cliff Lee proving he's a difference-maker

On the postseason stage, the Rangers left-hander is baseball's most important player

Originally Published: October 17, 2010
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- During every spring training, Jon Daniels, the general manager of the Texas Rangers, compiles and consults "the list" -- a file of players in their free-agent year who might be available for acquisition should their teams fall out of contention.

Daniels has been diligent but skeptical. While there have been notable exceptions over the 34 seasons of unrestricted free agency -- Doyle Alexander in 1987, Fred McGriff in 1993, Randy Johnson in 1998, Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia in 2008, Daniels was wary of what he considered to be the erratic success rate of deals at the trade deadline. To Daniels, deadline deals -- because of the high price of giving up talented prospects -- were perilous. They were in his mind, as he said before Monday's Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, "a crapshoot."

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Kim Klement/US PresswireCliff Lee is 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA in two starts during this postseason.

But this season, one name -- Seattle pitcher Cliff Lee -- continued to intrigue him. As the Mariners sank in the standings, the possibility of Texas acquiring Lee intensified. Daniels and Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik kept in contact.

Trading for Lee represented a bold stroke, especially for a team that hadn't made the postseason since 1999. A year ago, Lee established himself as a fearless postseason competitor, leading the Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series and beating the Yankees for the Phillies' only two wins against New York. The first conversations were in June, just as the Rangers were in the throes of an 11-game winning streak. Daniels told his manager, Ron Washington, that there was a chance that Lee could be had. In response, Washington gave Daniels six words: "Do whatever you have to do."

Rangers third baseman Michael Young, the team's longest-tenured player, recalled the buzz in the Rangers' clubhouse. Then, as it appeared the powerhouse New York Yankees were prepared to acquire Lee, the talk disappeared.

"We knew we were going to get someone," Young recalled. "When we thought it was lost was when we heard the Yankees were in it and we said, 'Cliff's gone.'"

Talks between Seattle and the Yankees folded, and during the first week in July, the Rangers redoubled their efforts. On July 9, Lee was 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA for Seattle. He had struck out 89 batters and walked a miraculous six. Daniels made the deal.

"I didn't know we were going to get him. It didn't look as though we had a chance," Washington said. "When we got him, it sent a spark throughout the whole team. It meant the organization was serious about helping us win. I thought we had a good club. I thought we could make the playoffs. But when you a get a guy like Cliff Lee, well, then you can start thinking big."

In both a micro and macro sense, Cliff Lee commands the unique and rare position of being the most important player in baseball. In the foreground, he pitches Monday to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the ALCS against the Yankees and put them halfway to their first World Series. He is, even more so than Philadelphia's Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, currently the premier postseason pitcher in the game, the player in the mode of Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax who by his very presence becomes a difference-maker in a playoff series, evidenced by last Tuesday's complete-game, 11-strikeout masterpiece in Game 5 of the AL Division Series at Tampa Bay and a career postseason record of 6-0.

In the visiting manager's office at Yankee Stadium, Washington sits in front of a computer, a cup of coffee, a pack of Winstons and an aerosol can of air freshener. He speaks of Lee not only as a dominant pitcher but as a symbol of transition. Unlike their playoff teams of the past, the Rangers with Lee have something -- a championship-level ace on a playoff-caliber club -- that they never had before, which in a winner-take-all deciding game may make Texas the most dangerous team in baseball.

Washington also regards Lee as a symbol. Lee's presence gives the Rangers something else the organization has not had in its nearly 40 years of existence -- credibility.

"People are just now seeing what we're all about. No one got to see it before," Washington said. "When you get Cliff Lee, everyone has to take notice. He's an influencer. He influences the whole pitching staff. He influences the people around him and in this league. We've finally achieved what this organization has wanted for all these years. All the years of frustration here, when they say pitching dies in August, came to an end. Well, our pitching didn't die. This is what we're about now. The Texas Rangers are on the map."

Joe Girardi I don't think there's an exact science to how you approach Cliff Lee, but to me, he's a lot like Roy Halladay. … I think you have to be ready to hit from pitch one. And if he makes a mistake, don't miss it.

-- Yankees manager Joe Girardi

And yet at the macro level, Lee's importance also cannot be underestimated. At the end of the season, Lee will be a free agent for the first time in his career and whatever decision he makes will dramatically shift the balance of power in baseball.

It is one thing to acquire a player who has no control of his destiny, quite another to convince a player of Lee's considerable stature and leverage to stay. When the deal was made, Daniels called Lee and the two talked briefly about the future. "I told him, 'I don't know if you'll be here for 10 years or 10 weeks, but we'll treat you like you've been here 10 years,'" Daniels said. "It's all about 2010. It just wouldn't have been fair to talk to him beyond this season. He's already been traded a couple of times. He has two young kids. I said to him, 'Let's win. Let's try each other on for size, and see where it takes us.'"

For all of his gifts, Lee has played for four teams in the last calendar year, perhaps the greatest commentary on the business of baseball.

"It surprises me a little bit, but part of me understands why. It's totally a business," Lee said. "When teams go into spring training with high expectations and things don't pan out the way they expect it, players get traded. That's just what happens. That's the business side of it.

"Sometimes you wonder why when you have had success and done well for an organization why they would want to get rid of you, but it's a business. There's no team that's out there trying to make deals that make their team worse. Every time a player is traded, they're trying to improve their team or trying to move in a different direction. So there's a reason why they do those things, and I understand that."

Once before, a decade ago, the Rangers tried to buy credibility by signing Alex Rodriguez -- also formerly of Seattle -- to a record 10-year, $252 million free-agent contract. The contract was so widely ridiculed as financially and competitively disastrous -- Rodriguez lasted just three seasons and the Rangers finished in last place in all three of them -- that its engineer, former Rangers owner Tom Hicks, said last week he regretted ever making the deal.

Lee affects each corner of baseball. Should he remain with the Rangers, it will be Texas -- and not the Los Angeles Angels -- that would likely be considered the dominant threat in the American League West, and Washington and his team will have the credibility the club has always craved.

Should he leave the Rangers, a downtrodden team that has come to life this season would suddenly -- by his departure -- be reduced again into a good team that lacks the ace pitcher to remain on par with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.

And should Lee do the expected -- sign with the Yankees in a mega free-agent deal in the offseason -- the signing would have a triple effect: The pitching-erratic Yankees would have CC Sabathia and Lee anchoring what is already the richest team in baseball. It would balance the scales with New York's starting pitching-rich rival, the Boston Red Sox. And perhaps most perilously, it would solidify the financial status quo that has been central to baseball: Acquiring A-list free agents is the domain of only the tiny handful of elite franchises.

Today, however, the aura of Lee is not about the huge sum of money he will command this winter, but instead is centered on his October prowess, his accuracy and control. Washington recalled the first conversation he had with Lee after the acquisition, telling Lee that he would be an "influencer." Even when Lee refused to disclose that during July he'd been pitching with a stiff back, Washington admired Lee's desire to lead, trying to pitch through the injury until Lee, in Washington's words, was "embarrassed" in Kansas City.

"I told him, 'Welcome. We've been waiting for you,'" Washington said. "'This is the first time in Texas history we've had a bona-fide ace guy. So just do your job. You're an influencer. You're one of those guys. You can do it your own way. You can talk to the other guys about what you know or lead by your own example.' And he said to me, 'I came here to win. I just want to help us win.'

"It's his execution. This boy can execute," Washington said. "I've never seen a guy that has such pinpoint control and so very seldom misses his spot. You have to have good stuff and there are other guys with better, harder stuff, but nobody with the combination of top-level stuff and the ability to put the ball where he wants to, every time."

Colby Lewis, who shut down the Yankees in winning Game 2, echoed his manager's admiration of Lee's focus.

"It's amazing to me. Every time he can command four or five or however many pitches he has," Lewis said. "We were super pumped-up when we heard about the deal. When you watch, you can see with that kind of command why he is able to so often dominate hitters."

The Yankees, always the Yankees, offer subtle reminders that though he beat them twice in the World Series last year, Lee is just a man. "I don't change my approach against any pitcher," Derek Jeter said, adding that Lee's aura does not provide extra motivation, and that these are the Yankees, after all, vanquishers of Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz and Greg Maddux and virtually every great pitcher of this generation.

"We've faced a lot of pitchers throughout the years that have had great reputations," Jeter said. "Reputation doesn't win games. You still have to go out there and pitch. He's been able to do that. He's gotten a lot of attention and rightfully so, because he's had a lot of success … Cliff is as good as anyone in baseball right now."

Michael Young loves Lee's rhythm, how he "keeps the game moving," and he echoes the wide-angle lens of the short-term future Lee's arrival gave the Rangers. "I thought we could win the division without him," Young said, "but with him you can start thinking beyond that. He's that good." Around the batting cage there is chatter of the World Series last year, about the last time Lee pitched here in the postseason, when he stifled the Yankees so thoroughly in a 6-0 victory, highlighted by a nonchalant basket catch that illustrated his ease with pressure.

"I don't think there's an exact science to how you approach Cliff Lee, but to me, he's a lot like Roy Halladay," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "If you try to take a couple of pitches and get deep in the count, you might be 0-and-2. So, for me with Cliff Lee, I think you have to be ready to hit from pitch one. And if he makes a mistake, don't miss it."

If there was an ultimate example of how Lee confronts the challenge of the postseason, Washington prefers Game 5 of the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay. Lee entered the dugout passing his manager and pitching coach Mike Maddux, having finished the eighth, leading 6-1, three outs away from a complete game and pushing Texas farther into the postseason than ever before.

"He walked by," Washington of Lee. "I had relievers ready to finish the job. He looked at me. He looked at Mike. He stared at both of us and nodded his head real quick, real sharp. And I got the message. You know what the message was? He was saying, 'Don't worry. I got this. I got this.' "

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42