Time for Mariners to trade Lee

  • Sat Jul 3rd, 2010 11:34pm
  • Sports

By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer

The two most enjoyable years of my baseball life were 1964 and 1995.

It’s not just because the Cardinals came back from deep in the standings to win the World Series in ’64 and that the Mariners in ’95 beat daunting odds to reach the postseason.

It’s what those two seasons represented — that anything is possible if you don’t give up.

Behind in the American League West standings by a dozen games with only two months remaining, the 1995 Mariners didn’t shift their focus to the next year and trade away talent. They made deals to get better that season, got on a hot streak and thanked their lucky charms that the Angels crumbled in the final month.

The 1964 Cardinals were eight games out of first place and sixth in the National League standings on Aug. 1. Then they went 40-19 the rest of the way and the Phillies succumbed to a 10-game losing streak in late September, giving the Cardinals the league championship.

How different might things might have been had the Mariners traded Tino Martinez, who hit 31 homers in 1995, before the trade deadline instead of waiting until the offseason to send him to the Yankees? Or had the Cardinals shipped off veteran starter/reliever Roger Craig to the Reds in the summer of ’64 instead of the following winter?

This is why I understand the sentiment to keep Cliff Lee and see if 2010 can become another 1995 to the Mariners. Anything is possible.

But let’s get real. I just don’t see it with this year’s Mariners — Cliff Lee or no Cliff Lee.

First, they’re too far back in the standings.

Second, keeping Lee the rest of this season would make him essentially a rent-a-player to the Mariners because it likely will take north of $100 million to win him in free agency next year. (Can you imagine how Felix Hernandez, signed to a five-year $78 million extension before this season, might react if the M’s gave Lee that kind of money? You can bet the Mariners have thought about that one.)

Third, there’s the thought that the Mariners should trade Hernandez and re-sign Lee. Intriguing, but that’s way too risky considering the likelihood some other team will pony up what it’ll take to sign Lee as a free agent. That would be a devastating double-whammy.

And fourth, did we say how far out in the standings the Mariners are and how unrealistic, if not impossible, a comeback would be?

The Mariners entered the weekend last in the AL West and 131/2 games behind first-place Texas. Teams have come back from that, and there’s the well-worn theory that the Rangers will wilt in the Texas heat later this summer. I’m not buying that with this year’s Rangers, but even if it becomes the Angels who the Mariners have to beat, their odds are slim.

The Mariners would have to play as well in the second half as the Angels have in the first half (.556 winning percentage) and the Angels play as poorly as the Mariners (.423), and even then the Mariners would finish 80-82. While it’s not impossible to play .556 baseball, the Angels won’t crumble to that degree and 80 victories won’t come close to winning this division.

But didn’t the 1995 Mariners do that?

Not exactly. They hovered around the .500 mark much of that season, which started in late April because of the players strike. They were a game below .500 (34-35) at the All-Star break and only two below (43-45) on Aug. 1. That’s a whole lot different than what this year’s team is doing.

The ’95 Mariners were a dozen games behind the Angels on Aug. 1 but still competitive enough to think they could compete for the newly created wild card playoff berth. So instead of playing for the next year, the Mariners signed free-agent reliever Norm Charlton and acquired pitcher Andy Benes and leadoff hitter Vince Coleman through trades.

The 2010 Mariners are hardly the 1995 team, which became an ideal mix of speed, power, defense and grittiness with players like Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Luis Sojo, Joey Cora, Randy Johnson, Chris Bosio, Tim Belcher, Benes and Charlton. Oh, and there also was a young shortstop named Alex Rodriguez who got some playing time. That was a continuation of a promising ’94 season when the team blossomed under manager Lou Piniella before the players’ strike halted everything in August.

This year’s Mariners? It’s hard to see this team on the verge of anything with uncertainty at first base, third base, left field, DH and catcher, plus the holes in the offense. The Mariners’ best minor league players are at the Class AA level and at least two years from being ready for the big leagues.

That’s why Lee is the Mariners’ best opportunity to obtain bona-fide talent that’s ready for the big leagues now, not two or three years from now.

Having said that, if GM Jack Zduriencik can’t find a deal that addresses both the Mariners’ immediate and longterm needs, he shouldn’t do it. He’d be better off keeping Lee and losing him to free agency, which would bring the Mariners a first-round pick along with a compensation pick after the first round in next year’s draft.

I can’t imagine that happening.

Lee is too good for a contending team to pass up because he’s a proven difference-maker down the stretch and in the postseason. A team that has every other ingredient for a championship run will want to deal and should be willing to pay a solid price.

Keeping Lee just to retain hope that 1995 can happen again would be a mistake. And trading him shouldn’t be considered as a sign that the Mariners have given up.

Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog