ARLINGTON, Texas — Cliff Lee is suddenly in the starting rotation for the AL West-leading Texas Rangers, who pulled off a big deal despite bankruptcy proceedings and unsettled ownership.
The Seattle Mariners sent the ace left-hander and reliever Mark Lowe to the Rangers on Friday for rookie first baseman Justin Smoak and three minor leaguers. Texas also receives cash as part of the deal.
It was the third trade in less than a year for Lee, who went 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA in 13 starts for Seattle. He can become a free agent after this season.
For now, he will be starting for the Rangers (as early as Saturday against Baltimore), who landed one of the most coveted players on the trade market despite financial constraints that made it uncertain if they could make such a move before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
General manager Jon Daniels has repeatedly said the Rangers had some financial flexibility to make a deal, but he had never been specific on how that could work.
"Everybody knows our situation. When we take on salary, we have to look at that and see if we can justify it within our budget," team president Nolan Ryan said. "As long as we stay within our budget, we don’t really have restrictions on us to where we can’t do things."
Considering that a bankruptcy judge in May approved a multimillion-dollar loan from Major League Baseball to keep the Rangers afloat during bankruptcy proceedings, there are sure to be those who question the team’s ability to make such a deal.
"I’d guess they’ll be some unnamed sources, but I don’t expect a lot of phone calls," Daniels said when asked if he anticipated any backlash from other teams.
The 31-year-old Lee has a $9 million salary this season and is expected to command a lucrative, multiyear deal in the offseason – unless Texas signs him to an extension before that.
Lee was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason outings last year, including 2-0 in the World Series against the New York Yankees.
He said he spoke with Yankees ace and former Cleveland teammate CC Sabathia on Thursday night and both thought Lee might be traded to New York. Instead, he joins a different first-place team – and the Yankees avoid facing him.
Lee had been scheduled to pitch for Seattle against the Yankees on Friday night. Once the deal was completed, David Pauley was given the assignment for the Mariners.
The 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner for the Indians, Lee was acquired by Seattle from the Philadelphia Phillies last December after the NL champions scored fellow ace Roy Halladay in a deal with Toronto.
Smoak is considered one of the top prospects in the majors, though the switch-hitter batted only .209 with eight homers and 34 RBIs in 70 games for the Rangers this season. Seattle also obtained right-handers Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, and infielder Matt Lawson.
The Mariners were expected to contend for the AL West title this season but quickly fell off the pace. They had lost four straight going into Friday night and were 16 games out.
Seattle’s problems made Lee one of the biggest commodities available, and about a dozen teams were believed to have inquired about the pitcher.
Now, Texas gets a big boost in its quest for its first playoff berth since 1999.
"We’ve always said if we had a chance to improve, we would," Daniels said. "We’re excited about it."
Lee missed the first month of the season with an abdominal injury but quickly made up for the lost time. He is 5-1 with a 1.76 ERA in his last six starts, throwing four of his major league-best five complete games.
Lee, who has 89 strikeouts and six walks in 103 2-3 innings this year, now will wear a Rangers uniform in Tuesday night’s All-Star game in Anaheim, Calif.
Also leaving Seattle is Lowe, one of the Mariners’ most consistent relievers in recent seasons. But he likely is out for the year following back surgery last month.
Smoak and Beavan are the big pieces headed to Seattle. Smoak was the Rangers’ No. 1 draft pick in 2008 and Beavan was their top selection a year earlier. Beavan was 10-5 with a 2.78 ERA in 110 innings for Double-A Frisco this season.
"(Lee) is a great pitcher. They want to take it to the next level here. This can always happen in baseball," Smoak said. "It’s tough, being new to this business. You think you’re going to be on a team for a while and then things change overnight."
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