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Handicapping the Cliff Lee sweepstakes

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What was it that Yogi Berra said, "It's like deja vu all over again"?

Why do I have the feeling that I have done this before? By this, I mean a piece in July on where or who is interested in grabbing Cliff Lee at the trade deadline. Oh, that's right, it's because I did exactly the same thing a year ago when Cleveland was offering the left-hander to anyone who would listen.

Yes, Lee has become the modern-day David Cone, a mercenary commodity acquired for the stretch run by teams harboring World Series aspirations. Cone did it a couple of times in his career, and now Lee, who was an integral part of the Philadelphia Phillies' second straight National League title a year ago, appears to be headed in that same direction.

Seattle entered the year as the American League West favorite after acquiring Lee from Philadelphia. With the perennial division powerhouse Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim expected to have a down year, Seattle was the obvious choice with Lee and the uber-talented Felix Hernandez combining for one of the best 1-2 combinations atop a rotation.

Of course, the season has not gone as planned, as the Mariners have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league and reside in last place in the West, 15 games back of division-leading Texas.


Cliff Lee has a AL-low 2.34 ERA.
Outside of missing the first month of the season with an abdominal injury, Lee is hardly to blame, as he is 8-3 with an AL-low 2.34 ERA. Oh, by the way he has won his last four starts and five of his last six, going the distance in four of those outings. Not a bad showing for a guy who is going to be a free agent at the end of the year.

He is the best pitcher in baseball at the moment and people in Cleveland and Philadelphia may not want to hear this, but Seattle is going to get a ton more in return for him than, for one, they gave up, and, two, what the Phillies paid for him at last year's deadline.

How can that be possible for a player who is essentially a two-month rental?

Quite simply, it is the market. Some people have speculated that there could upwards of 11 or 12 teams involved in this when it is all said and done. Throw in both New York teams, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay and you have yourself a full-fledged bidding war for a top-of-the-line pitcher who is at the top of his game.

So let's take a look below at the teams who are expected to be in the running for the former A.L. Cy Young Award winner's services before the July 31 non- waiver trade deadline:

FAVORITES

MINNESOTA TWINS
- Initially it was reported that Seattle had hoped to obtain a catching prospect as part of the ransom they would receive for Lee. Enter the Minnesota Twins, who at the moment are a half game back of the Detroit Tigers in the A.L. Central. They fill Seattle's need in backstop Wilson Ramos, and with somebody named Joe Mauer currently behind the plate, Ramos is absolutely expendable. In addition to Ramos, the Twins also are apparently willing to part with outfielder Aaron Hicks. If that is indeed true, this whole sweepstakes may be a moot point, because an offer like that in my opinion means game over.

NEW YORK METS - The New York Mets desperately need another starter to pair with Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey. Earlier in the year, they had hoped to get someone like a Kevin Millwood, or some other veteran innings-eater. But with Carlos Beltran nearing a return and the Mets just two games out of first place in the N.L. East, they are real players here. Catcher Josh Thole is a marginal prospect, but 22-year-old flame thrower Jenrry Meja is legit. A package centered around those two, plus an Angel Pagan or Jonathan Niese, should get it done.

TAMPA BAY RAYS - This is the one team that should scare the rest of the league if they can get Lee. The Rays have done their best to keep themselves under the radar here, but they are definitely involved, and some people think they may very well be the favorites to land him. Manager Joe Maddon and the rest of the organization have tired of B.J. Upton and could offer him along with Dioner Navarro. Upton could be as talented a player as there is in the league, but some think he just will never get it from a maturity standpoint. The blowup with Evan Longoria in the team dugout a couple weeks back seems to have been the final straw.

KICKING THE TIRES

NEW YORK YANKEES
- I am not so sure how involved the Yankees will be in this whole process, but if the Rays are indeed involved, you can bet your bottom dollar that general manager Brian Cashman is looking into acquiring Lee. The Yankees have two of the top catching prospects in baseball at their disposal in Austin Romine and Jesus Montero, not to mention 24-year-old Francisco Cervelli, who is currently on their roster. Let's be honest, though, Lee is a luxury for the Yankees, unless they can unload Javier Vazquez, who is in the final year of his deal.

CINCINNATI REDS - I was skeptical of the Reds being the trendy pick at the beginning of the year because, well, they are the Reds. I was completely wrong, though, and an acquisition of Lee could very well tip the scale in their favor in the N.L. Central. If anything, it give them a sense of legitimacy. In addition to a catcher, Seattle also could use a first baseman, and Yonder Alonso certainly fits the bill. The Reds are going to shut down rookie Mike Leake at some point and they cannot count on much from Edinson Volquez, who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery, as well as a steroid suspension, after the All-Star break. It would be a bold move, but if the Reds want to reach the postseason it may be one they have to make.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS - A month or so ago, I thought the Cardinals would be big players for Chicago lefty Mark Buehrle, who is a St. Louis native. But the White Sox have been on a tremendous roll of late and are just one game back of Detroit in the AL Central. So, he is out. The Cards need another starter. Brad Penny is coming back, but they probably need another one anyway, especially if there is an innings limit on Jaime Garcia. Not to mention that the Reds are interested, so common sense tells you that the Cards would have to be a player just to block him from going to a division rival.

LONGSHOTS

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
- The Phillies can certainly use Lee, but I don't see general manager Ruben Amaro going back there. He would have to surrender prized prospect Dominic Brown, a player he was unwilling to include this past winter in the Roy Halladay deal. The Phils will rue the day they dealt Lee should he come back to haunt them come playoff time.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS - There is probably not a better fit for Lee than in Los Angeles, but the Dodgers' financial situation is up in the air with regards to the messy divorce of owner Frank McCourt. I don't see them making a move like this.

TEXAS RANGERS - The Rangers are in first place. They have pitched better than anyone ever thought they could. Lately, though, it has been their incredible offense that has carried them. They were sniffing around at Roy Oswalt earlier, so logic tells you they have made a call concerning Lee. But, as bad of a financial situation the Dodgers are in, the Rangers are in worse shape with an unsettled ownership situation. The only way they can pull off a deal like this is if Seattle takes Rich Harden back. Doubtful, considering he is currently on the disabled list.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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