This partnership never felt right. Cliff Lee's free agency always cast a cloud over it.

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The short-lived Cliff Lee fantasy ended with the ace’s trademark reaction. He shrugged, shook his head and gave a befuddled stare. Besides his incredible pitching talent, this is the only thing we had time to learn about Lee — his uncomfortable mannerisms.

On Friday, the Mariners traded Lee, whom they acquired just seven months ago, to the Texas Rangers. In the six-player deal, they also shipped reliever Mark Lowe to the Rangers and received a potential star slugger in Justin Smoak, along with three other prospects. What the Mariners really did, however, was starting mopping up another mess.

“I don’t think anybody in spring training, when we got here, expected it to turn out like this,” Lee said.

With those words, the circumspect pitcher analyzed this conclusion perfectly. Last December, when Philadelphia gift-wrapped and sent Lee to Seattle, the Mariners thought they’d been given an easier route to the playoffs. Instead, a franchise scuffling through a nine-year postseason drought ruined another opportunity.

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A playoff contender never materialized. It fell apart mostly because the Mariners can’t hit, and even more troubling, they knew this could be a problem and did an insufficient job of addressing it this past offseason.

Lee did all he could. In the only 13 starts of his Mariners career, he was brilliant. He finished with an 8-3 record, a 2.34 ERA and an unreal 14.83-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And for a guy who knew he could be a loner, Lee displayed tremendous professionalism and leadership.

Looking back, you could’ve written this ending at the beginning. The Phillies gave Lee to the Mariners for a bargain price (Phillipe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez and Tyson Gillies) because they’d acquired another ace, Roy Halladay, and Lee seemed determined to enter free agency after this season. The Mariners accepted the gift because they would’ve been foolish to say no.

But this partnership never felt right. Lee’s free agency always cast a cloud over it. When the trade went down, Lee was in shock. He didn’t come to Seattle for an introductory news conference until five weeks after the trade. He missed the start of spring training after having foot surgery and missed the start of the season with an abdominal injury.

All the while, the Mariners failed to put together a quality offensive lineup to support a scintillating starting pitching rotation featuring Lee and Felix Hernandez. When the season began in April, it was immediately clear the Mariners were about to lose an opportunity to win in 2010. In essence, they weren’t ready to make such an influential deal.

But here’s the complicated question: Were they wrong to resist going on a spending spree to back up the Lee deal? Instead of settling with a $93.5 million payroll this season, which is almost $6 million less than the previous year, the Mariners could’ve spent big bucks on a combination of acquisitions such as left fielder Jason Bay and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero. They could’ve tried harder to re-sign Adrian Beltre and either traded or experimented with Jose Lopez at first base.

They could’ve “gone for it.” But with a rebuilding plan already in place and uncertainty over whether they could re-sign Lee, those moves could’ve hamstrung them in the future. While it’s trendy to hurl accusations at Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln for not acting on the urge, you have to consider the other side, too. If you think the Mariners are in bad shape now, imagine if they had built a win-now roster, only to realize they were just marginally better. And then Lee walked away in free agency.

Still, the Cliff Lee era feels more like the Cliff Lee err-a. The Mariners didn’t have to completely sell out on this season to give themselves a better chance. Not the best chance, a better one. But they didn’t even manage to do that.

General manager Jack Zduriencik called the trade “bittersweet.” He knows that whenever the Mariners are contenders — 2012, perhaps — they will probably be looking to add a pitcher of Lee’s caliber. They had the real deal, but they didn’t even get to romance him.

“As we moved forward, the choices were going to be Cliff’s,” Zduriencik said while explaining why the trade had to happen. “They weren’t going to be ours.”

And so promise turned into heartbreak. The only consolation is that, in a roundabout way, the Mariners’ future looks better than it did last December. The package they received in dealing Lee is better than the package they gave up to get him. It makes for an arduous net gain, but it comes with a price: playing with the fans’ emotions and leaving them in agony once more.

The Mariners told their following to “Believe Big” this season. Now they’re like Whitney Houston, singing, I believe the children are our future.

It’s the greatest shame of all.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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