Already Gone: Long Awaited Cliff Lee Deal Finally Completed; Ace Lefty Traded from Seattle to Texas for Justin Smoak and Prospects.

It was all smiles when Cliff Lee arrived in Seattle, but it wasn't meant to be.

When grammy-winner Kelly Clarkson penned her hit “Already Gone” she wasn’t referring to the love between a man and a woman. Rather, Clarkson was alluding to the relationship between superstar pitcher Cliff Lee and the Seattle Mariners:

“Remember all the things we wanted (a World Series title); Now all our memories they’re haunted (a ruined chance at a long-term relationship); We were always meant to say goodbye (how ’bout just so long for now?)” 

“Even with our fists held high (seven wins in Lee’s last nine starts); It never would’ve worked out right (Seattle’s cursed after all); We were never meant for do or die (though we wish Beiber-mania would).” 

“I want you to know that it doesn’t matter; Where we take this road someone’s gotta go (either via free agency or trade); And I want you to know you couldn’t have loved me better (8-3, 2.34 ERA, 89 K’s/6 BB’s); But I want you to move on so I’m already gone (16 games out in division).” 

“Looking at you makes it harder (because he’s so very good); But I know that you’ll find another (please just don’t be the Yankees or Boston); That doesn’t always make you want to cry (or at least a team that can score runs).” 

Despite Kelly’s warning, losing Cliff Lee won’t be any less painful for Mariners’ fans. He was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season and his affable personality and dynamic stuff made Lee a lovable character among a team of bumbling oafs.

My head knew that Cliff Lee had to go, but my heart still refuses to believe it.

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Heaven Isn’t Too Far Away: The Authoritative 2010 Seattle Mariners Season Preview.

Are the Seattle Mariners bound for baseball heaven in 2010?

It was the year 1989 when Warrant penned their classic hair-metal ballad “Heaven”—a song that helped their album go platinum and pushed the band to the forefront of the rock-and-roll consciousness. That very same year another chart topper emerged into the national spotlight—a young ballplayer by the name of Ken Griffey Jr. who energized a sleepy city and brought direction to a long lost franchise.   

Now in the third decade of a storybook career, Griffey has one last, final last chance to bring a title to a championship-starved town and add the only thing missing from an otherwise spotless resume. Does he have enough left in his 40-year-old body to will the M’s across the finish line? Are his teammates up to the challenge?   

The Mariners took a major step forward last season, finishing with an 85-77 record on the strength of breakout stars like Felix Hernandez and Franklin Gutierrez. Seattle’s GM Jack Zduriencik sensed that 2010 could be a banner year for his team and he spent the offseason creating a championship caliber ballclub, headlined by the additions of former Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee and speedster Chone Figgins. Do the Mariners have enough ammunition to compete in a deep and talented division or are they once again destined for disappointment? Here’s what they’re bringing to the table in 2010:  

Starting Nine (Projected 2010 stats from ESPN.com)   

Rightfield: Ichiro Suzuki (.307-6 HR’s-49 RBI’s-29 SB’s-.350 OBP)   

Second Base: Chone Figgins (.281-4 HR’s-46 RBI’s-35 SB’s-.375 OBP)   

Leftfield: Milton Bradley (.285-15 HR’s-58 RBI’s-.394 OBP)   

Designated Hitter: Ken Griffey Jr. (.239-14 HR’s-41 RBI’s-.341 OBP)   

Third Base: Jose Lopez (.279-24 HR’s-90 RBI’s-.308 OBP)   

Centerfield: Franklin Gutierrez (.280-20 HR’s-68 RBI’s-14 SB’s-.333 OBP)   

First Base: Casey Kotchman (.274-9 HR’s-53 RBI’s-.342 OBP)   

Shortstop: Jack Wilson (.250-4 HR’s-40 RBI’s-.293 OBP)   

Catcher: Adam Moore/Rob Johnson (.250-6-22/.243-5-30)   

The Mariners need Griffey to hit like a kid again in 2010.

Thoughts: While it’s not exactly Murderer’s Row, the M’s lineup should be an improvement over the squad that managed to score only 640 runs last season. Seattle might not have a single player top 30 home runs this year, but playing in spacious Safeco Field the team is better suited to rely on speed and gap power anyway, and it appears the M’s finally have a squad suited for that style of play with Ichiro and Figgins leading the way atop the lineup. The two combined for an astounding 408 hits, 202 runs and 68 stolen bases last year and should cause nightmares for opposing pitchers.

Bradley has the potential to be a solid #3 hitter with decent pop and good patience but he’s anything but a sure thing mentally or physically. Griffey is expected to be in better shape than 2009 after offseason knee surgery and Gutierrez should continue to mature as a hitter after showing marked improvement last year. Lopez wouldn’t draw a walk if you offered him $100,000 for each base on balls, but he’s at least adequate for Seattle at third base and will be an improvement over the injury-riddled Adrian Beltre of last year. The bottom third of the order is better suited for play in the deadball era and will need to exceed expectations in order to avoid letting the rest of the team down.  

Ryan Garko and Eric Byrnes should provide some energy off the bench and talented youngster Michael Saunders is waiting in the wings with the Tacoma Rainiers if Bradley gets stupid or injured (or both at the same time). Hopefully Seattle can avoid handing out too many at-bats to the offensively challenged Jack Hannahan and Ryan Langerhans (both of whom have more holes in their swings than the plot of an M. Night Shyamalan movie). Their lineup clearly isn’t going to carry the Mariners to the pennant, but it ought to be good enough to keep games close…and that’s all Seattle’s pitchers will need.  

Pitching Staff (Projected Stats from ESPN.com)   

1) Felix Hernandez (17 wins-2.95 ERA-1.21 WHIP-203 K’s)   

2) Cliff Lee (18 wins-3.33 ERA-1.22 WHIP-180 K’s)     

3) Ryan Rowland-Smith (10 wins-4.06 ERA-1.31 WHIP-111 K’s)   

4) Ian Snell (7 wins-5.05 ERA-1.59 WHIP-96 K’s)   

5) Jason Vargas/Doug Fister/Luke French (????)   

Can the Hyphenator build of his late season success and complement Felix and Cliff?

Thoughts: The pitching talent drops off precipitously after Hernandez and Lee, and if they could, the team would probably pitch those two every other day (Dr. James Andrews has advised against it). The Mariners have to hope that Erik Bedard makes a speedy recovery from offseason surgery or the club might have to pursue another arm at the trading deadline to stay in contention.  

King Felix will be hard pressed to improve upon his 2009 season, but at only 23-years-old (24 in April), nothing is out of the question for the talented Venezuelan (he’s the odds on favorite for the 2010 AL Cy Young Award). Lee should be able to thrive in a pitcher’s park with a strong defense up the middle, and his impending free agency at the end of the year should provide him with all the motivation he needs. Rowland-Smith is a serviceable number three starter who could turn some heads after a strong finish to 2009. After Rowland-Smith however, things get a little bit murky. 

Ian Snell was consistently inconsistent after being acquired from the Pirates last year and unless he drastically cuts down on walks he’ll never be anything but a headache for the Mariners. Fister, Vargas and French all had moments of brilliance in 2009, but none of them have taken the bull by the horns and grabbed the #5 spot with their performances in Spring Training. Seattle has the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball with Hernandez and Lee and they’ll need to lean heavily on them with question marks throughout the rest of the rotation. A healthy Bedard is paramount to a deep postseason run. 

Bullpen:   

Closer: David Aardsma   

Set-Up: Mark Lowe, Brandon League, Shawn Kelley, Kanekoa Texeira, etc.   

It's everything I always hoped it would be.

Thoughts:  Just like last year, the bullpen should be the real strength of the club. David Aardsma was one of the biggest surprises in baseball last year, and even with the expected regression in 2010, should be an above-average closer for the M’s. If he struggles, the newly acquired Brandon League has the stuff to close games, as does Mark Lowe. Texeira (thankfully no relation to the Yankees’ Mark) has looked sharp all spring and should help to bridge the gap in the 7th or 8th inning. If there is one facet of the team that I’m not worried about, it’s the bullpen.

Fearless Forecast: Call me hopelessly optimistic, but something about this Mariners’ squad has me more excited for Opening Day than I can ever remember. The team has a good mix of veterans and rising stars and a boatload of positive momentum after a surprising 2009 season. The clubhouse chemistry should remain intact with Griffey still aboard, although it may suffer some with the loss of Carlos Silva (aka Felix’s BFF).

The Mariners aren’t great in any one area of the game, but they are solid across the board and should be able to take advantage of a down year for the Los Angeles Angels and capture the AL West in a hard fought battle. With King Felix, Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard leading the rotation Seattle would be unstoppable in a postseason series, because as is proven year after year, pitching wins championships. And finally, after all these years and countless tears, Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners will bring a World Series title home to Seattle.

For once Mariners’ fans, heaven isn’t too far away.

Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back: Should the Mariners Buy or Sell?

Bedard has pitched brilliantly all season, making him a prime trade target.

Bedard has pitched well all year, making him a prime trade target.

Breezing into the All-Star break with a record of 46-42 the Seattle Mariners have outperformed even the most optimistic of predictions for their 2009 season. Despite a lackluster offense (2nd to last in the American League in runs) the Mariners find themselves only four games out of first in the AL West after taking three of four from Texas over the weekend. The team has thrived in one-run games and has gotten clutch contributions from every spot in the order (Chris Shelton today, Rob Johnson yesterday, etc). Seattle’s pitching has been the linchpin to success, with a fantastic 3.74 ERA as a team (1st in AL). The pitching staff also leads the league in saves, WHIP and batting average against (.246). This season is beginning to look like 2007 for the Mariners, a year in which they scored less runs than they allowed, yet still finished with a record of 88-75. Even though they beat the odds in 2007 to finish on the winning side of the ledger, Seattle still missed the playoffs and fell to 61-101 last year. The L.A. Angels have heated up after a slow start, winning 7 of their last 10 games, and it will likely take 90+ wins to capture the division. As good as the Mariners have been, they probably can’t be expected to win more than 84-85 games. So, do the Mariners gamble that they can overtake the Angels and try to acquire some offensive firepower, or does Seattle trade some of their veterans and start building towards next season?

The Mariners' off-season addition of Gutierrez has them challenging for the division crown. Are there more moves ahead?

The Mariners' off-season addition of Gutierrez has them challenging for the division crown. Are there more moves ahead before the deadline?

New general manager Jack Zdrunciek has shown himself to be a shrewd evaluator of talent, bringing in key players like David Aardsma, Russell Branyan and Franklin Gutierrez through free agency and trades. Zdrunciek seems intent on keeping Seattle competitive this season, already acquiring Ryan Langerhans and Jack Hannahan in trades as well as shipping Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals. However, the Mariners sent most of their best minor league players (Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, etc.) to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal last year and injuries to starters like Adrian Beltre, Endy Chavez and the since-departed Betancourt have exposed the lack of depth in the club’s farm system. Zdrunciek finds himself at a crossroads in the first year as Seattle’s GM, balancing the need to compete this season against the need to build a team that can challenge for the playoffs perennially. While Zdrunciek was with Milwaukee the team had a track record for shying away from big trades (except for C.C. Sabathia last season) and building one of baseball’s best farm systems (Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, JJ Hardy, etc.). Will Zdrunciek stick to this formula with the Mariners?

If Seattle does decide that they want to move some pieces before the July 31st trading deadline they have plenty of players that would attract interest throughout baseball. Pitcher Erik Bedard would likely be the most coveted Mariner, a left-handed pitcher with the potential to be a true staff ace. Bedard has struggled to stay healthy in his career with Seattle, but has been phenomenal in 2009 with a 2.63 ERA and 79 Ks in 75 innings. The Mariners would be wise to shop him around while he is healthy, as Bedard is a free-agent at the end of the year and unlikely to resign with Seattle. Another sell-high candidate for the M’s is surprising slugger Russell Branyan. Given a full-time role for the first time in his career, Branyan has responded by hitting .280 with 22 HRs and 49 RBIs. The power numbers are for real, but his high strikeout rate points to a continued dip in batting average as he is only a .237 hitter in over 2,200 lifetime at-bats. Rounding out the Mariner’s trading chips is the resurgent Jarrod Washburn. Finally pitching like the player Seattle thought they signed in 2006, Washburn’s new splitter has given him the ability to drastically cut down the number of hits he allows, and at the break he sports a 6-6 record with a 2.96 ERA. Like Bedard, Washburn will be a free-agent at the end of the season, and if he signed with another team would only net the Mariners one compensatory draft pick.

Reid Brignac would sure look good in Mariner blue.

Shortstop Reid Brignac would sure look good in Mariner blue.

On the other hand, if Seattle wants to make a run at the AL West title, there are a number of moves that the team needs to make in order to keep pace with the Angels and Rangers. One position that has long been a headache for the Mariners is shortstop. Betancourt was a disappointment before his trade and replacement Ronny Cedeno may play great defense, but he is hitting just .168 on the year. An intriguing option for the Mariners is Tampa Bay minor league shortstop Reid Brignac. Buried behind Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist in the Rays organization, Brignac is a top-tier prospect, and if the M’s can pry him away from Tampa he could become Seattle’s shortstop of the future while helping them contend for the playoffs this year. The addition of Langerhans has provided a temporary spark to the Mariners’ offense, but the team still has a glaring need for an outfielder with some pop. Most teams don’t like to trade within the division, but Seattle would greatly benefit from the power and speed combination of Oakland leftfield Matt Holliday. After a slow start to the season, Holliday has regained the form that made him a runner for up NL MVP in 2007, and with the Athletics firmly entrenched in the division cellar would be available for the right price. If Seattle doesn’t want to meet Billy Beane’s demands for Holliday, the Mariners might want to think about pursuing Washington Nationals OF Josh Willingham (.304 BA, 12 HRs, .419 OBP) who is having a career year at age 30 and would come with a much smaller price tag.

The Mariners and GM Jack Zdrunciek have some very important decisions to make over the next few weeks. Do they owe it to their fans to go out and trade for a big bat and help at third base or shortstop? Or should they move some soon-to-be free agents in order to build for the future? Needless to say, Zdrunciek and Co. will have many a sleepless night between now and July 31st.

What do you think? Should the Mariners buy or sell at the trade deadline?