Cliff Lee says he doesn't like to negotiate contract extensions during the season but says, "I'll go in with an open mind and do everything I can to help them win."
Signing a long-term deal with the Mariners is the last thing new pitcher Cliff Lee has on his mind these days.
Only a few days ago, Lee believed he was about to sign a long-term pact with the Philadelphia Phillies. That club had made an initial offer to Lee about a week earlier and the pitcher said Thursday his side had made a counterproposal on the day the Phillies decided to trade him to Seattle for three minor-leaguers.
In other words, while Lee says he’s coming here with an open mind and will give the city and team a chance, he’s still somewhat shocked.
“At first I didn’t believe it because I had thought we were working out an extension with the Phillies and I would spend the rest of my career there,” he told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “That’s what I was thinking. It goes to show that this is a business and you never know what is going to happen until you have a full no-trade clause.”
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Lee had figured he’d be enjoying a week of leisure ahead of the Christmas holidays.
He’d gone deer hunting on his property in Arkansas on Monday when his wife, Kristen, phoned to tell him rumors of the pending trade were all over the place. At that point, Lee had his agent call the Phillies.
“They kind of downplayed it,” he said. “I thought for sure it was rumors.”
But the next day, as Lee was going hunting again, this time along the Mississippi River, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. phoned to tell him he had, in fact, been dealt.
Lee spent Wednesday getting his thoughts together. He left Thursday for Puerto Rico on a planned vacation and finally spoke to reporters after landing there.
“I’m looking forward to helping the Mariners win and doing my job every time I take the mound,” Lee said. “But my initial reaction was disbelief and shock. But after that set in, looking at the Mariners team and what they’ve got, I like what they’ve got.”
Lee mentioned that Safeco Field was more pitcher-friendly than Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia. He also said having defensive-oriented players like Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez, Chone Figgins and Jack Wilson behind him is something any pitcher would be happy about.
But Lee wants to play alongside those teammates and get to know Seattle before he thinks about a long-term extension.
“I don’t know what Seattle has to offer,” he said. “All I’ve ever seen was from the visiting side. Until I feel out my teammates, the chemistry of the team and how the organization is run … I’m going into it with an open mind. I’m going to go there and be me.”
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik had stressed Wednesday the need to sell players on the city and showing them “the great story” of what’s going on here. This should be a big test of Zduriencik’s ability to do just that, because Lee says he’s traditionally been opposed to negotiating contract extensions during the season.
“Fundamentally I’m opposed to that because that can become a distraction and it ends up being about me instead of winning,” he said. “I’m a little bit opposed to that, but this is a different situation.”
It is indeed, because Lee will have only a short time to get to know his teammates before the season starts. After the season, he’ll be weeks away from free agency and even he admits that “generally, the closer a player gets to free agency, that’s when they become less likely to sign.”
He’d had the same reservations last summer when he was traded to Philadelphia by the Cleveland Indians.
“You never know until you’re around those guys everyday, what they have to offer,” he said. “And they [the Phillies] were the real deal.”
It remains to be seen whether the Mariners can be the same. Certainly, a rotation fronted by Lee and Felix Hernandez is a solid building block toward contention.
The Mariners saw one of their potential hitting targets go elsewhere on Thursday as Nick Johnson was reported to have agreed to a one-year deal with the Yankees worth about $5.5 million.
But the Mariners remain linked to a number of high profile bats, including Jason Bay, Johnny Damon and Adrian Gonzalez, as well as numerous lower profile hitters in both the trade and free-agent markets.
Zduriencik has said he’s still out to improve the team. And Lee insists he’ll give his new club a fair chance to show what it’s got.
“I’ve got to,” he said. “There’s no other option … I’m not going to sit here and be bitter about it. I’m a little disappointed because of what we had going there with the Phillies. It’s a new chapter. I’ve got to go to the Mariners and got to go there and make the best of it. It’s the same type feeling I had when I got traded from Cleveland to Philadelphia.
“We’re not going to know until time plays itself out. I’ll go in with an open mind and do everything I can to help them win.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners