Mariners send minor-leaguers Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez and Tyson Gillies to the Phillies for 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee.
Only eight days before nailing down ace Cliff Lee for their rotation, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and confidants sat in an Indianapolis hotel suite contemplating a serious setback in their pursuit of pitching.
It was Dec. 8, near the end of the second day of baseball’s winter meetings, and Zduriencik and company had just heard that Texas had outbid them for free-agent pitcher Rich Harden.
It shot down one of the team’s top pitching targets, and the Mariners suddenly knew their goal of landing a starter was not going to happen at the meetings.
But the next day, a conversation with Philadelphia Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. dramatically altered Seattle’s fortunes and started the wheels turning toward the blockbuster deal announced Wednesday.
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Amaro brought up two big pitching names: Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay and Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee.
“Look, if I’m able to do Halladay, would you be able to do Cliff Lee?” Amaro asked Zduriencik.
Amaro had failed to land Halladay at last July’s trade deadline. Amaro finally has his man, thanks largely to Zduriencik’s role in a complex, four-team series of deals between the Mariners, Phillies, Blue Jays and Oakland Athletics. Lee comes to Seattle in return for Class AA reliever Phillippe Aumont and Class A outfielder Tyson Gillies and starter J.C. Ramirez.
A one-two punch of Lee and Felix Hernandez makes the 85-win Mariners a force next season. It also has applause raining down on Zduriencik from fans and experts because he managed to keep his best prospects.
Remarkably, none of it had been in the works until Amaro approached Seattle’s GM last week.
Zduriencik had laid some groundwork before Amaro brought up Lee. For nearly a year, Trader Jack had talked with Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos about landing Halladay for the Mariners.
When the two spoke again before the meetings, Zduriencik was told that Halladay, who has no-trade protection, preferred contending clubs with spring-training facilities in Florida near his Tampa home. Anthopoulos had told Halladay suitors to submit offers three days before the winter meetings began.
Offers in hand, Anthopoulos began working more closely with Philadelphia. He liked the prospects in the Phillies’ system and wanted to see if he could improve their offer. But he also knew Amaro was reluctant to give up blue-chippers Kyle Drabek, J.A. Happ or Domonic Brown.
Amaro had dealt four prospects to get Lee last summer after J.P. Ricciardi, Anthopoulos’ predecessor in Toronto, nixed his bid to land Halladay. Anthopoulos realized the only way Amaro would loosen his grip on young talent was if he had others coming back his way.
Trading Lee to get those prospects became an option, because the left-hander, who won the 2008 American League Cy Young Award for Cleveland, would be a free agent after 2010.
About the time a Lee trade was being considered, the Toronto GM let Zduriencik know he was discussing a major deal with a National League team. Zduriencik figured it involved Halladay and the Phillies. Their spring-training site in Clearwater, Fla., is only 15 minutes from where the pitcher had trained with the Blue Jays.
At a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday, Anthopoulos was asked whether he knew beforehand that the Mariners and Phillies might have a match. Anthopoulos said he didn’t, but added, “The Mariners did.”
“When the Phillies and I talked about different scenarios, Cliff Lee’s name came up. We were exploring all kinds of ways,” Anthopoulos said. “Again, the Phillies had their eyes on the prize, and that was Roy Halladay, and we had our eye on the best players we could and trying to get as many of them as we could.
“We had all kinds of scenarios where Cliff Lee may have been going to some other teams, he may have been coming to our team [or] we may have traded him somewhere else.”
When Zduriencik found himself talking to Amaro and said he needed pitching, the pace quickened.
Amaro popped the question about exploring a Lee deal. Zduriencik quickly said yes. Amaro said he’d get back to the Mariners.
The next day, when Zduriencik was at the airport preparing to fly back to Seattle, he met again with Amaro. This time, the discussions were more detailed.
Zduriencik landed, and phoned Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu with good news: They might have something going. Wakamatsu had left the winter meetings the previous day unaware anything serious was brewing.
Now he knew Trader Jack was working on a deal.
“So many things get thrown around in Indianapolis in the winter meetings that people think it’s D-Day and something has to get done there,” Wakamatsu said. “But when you have these conversations, it can lead to bigger things down the road.”
The biggest took place last weekend, once commissioner Bud Selig approved a 72-hour window for the Phillies to negotiate a contract extension with Halladay. The pitcher was flown into Philadelphia that day. That night Toronto’s ownership approved $6 million to offset Halladay’s salary.
The main pieces in place, three teams continued running through various secondary trade scenarios as Sunday ran into Monday. One of them had Aumont, a native of Quebec, heading back to Canada to play for Toronto.
But this changed after the Phillies agreed to give up previously “untouchable” pitcher Drabek. Amaro needed more pitching, so Aumont was redirected to the Phillies.
“What they really needed was to replenish their system,” Zduriencik said.
The Blue Jays were also trying to land Phillies outfield prospect Brown and were not crazy about taking outfielder Michael Taylor instead. But Toronto found a fourth team to join the blockbuster, getting Oakland to take Taylor in exchange for third baseman Brett Wallace, a prospect Toronto had originally drafted and long coveted.
The key players finalized their physicals Tuesday. Early Wednesday, a rumor circulated that one prospect had failed his. A report later said that Anthopoulos had asked for an MRI on Wallace’s shoulder and was awaiting word.
It wasn’t until midday in Seattle that a nervous Wakamatsu got the phone call he wanted.
“Obviously, we’re extremely excited about it,” said Wakamatsu, who added that he won’t name the No. 1 starter until well into spring training. “For Jack to pull this off is a credit to how hard he works.”
Zduriencik, fresh off the biggest deal in his year as Seattle’s GM, caught his breath before moving on to the next one.
“We’re not done yet,” he said. “I would certainly like to do a few more things.”
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