Hours after a deal with the Yankees reportedly fell through, the Mariners came to an agreement with their American League West rivals, the Rangers. Seattle sent Lee, injured reliever Mark Lowe and cash to Texas in return for first baseman Justin Smoak and three prospects: right-hander Blake Beavan, second baseman Matt Lawson and right-hander Josh Lueke.
Lee is sixth in the Major Leagues with a 2.34 ERA (best in the AL) and boasts a jaw-dropping strikeouts-per-walk ratio of almost 15 to 1.
He was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise tough season so far for the Mariners, who acquired him from the Phillies in an offseason trade, hoping he'd be the key to a push for the AL West title.
Things didn't pan out that way. Lee has been spectacular, but the Mariners sit 16 games behind Texas in the division largely because of a struggling offense. That gap, coupled with the fact that Lee will be a high-priced free agent at season's end, fueled rampant speculation that a trade was imminent.
"I couldn't say enough about Cliff Lee," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "It was a pleasure to have him here. We all wish thing would have gone a little better and that things would have gone a different direction as far as the ballclub is concerned. But you get to a point, and we're at that point now, where we felt this was something that had to be done for long-term betterment of the club."
Smoak is that long-term plan. He'll join the club on Saturday, and he's a player Zduriencik said he hoped would be a cornerstone of the squad for years to come. In the meantime, Seattle called up left-hander Luke French from Triple-A Tacoma.
Smoak began the season with Triple-A Oklahoma City before being called up to the Majors in April. Since then, the 23-year-old has hit .209 with eight homers and 34 RBIs. With those numbers for the Mariners, he'd be tied for second in home runs and two off the team lead in RBIs.
Zduriencik said he scouted Smoak in high school and during his college career at South Carolina, and he was a target from the outset of trade negotiations for Lee.
"We pinpointed a handful of players that if we were able to acquire one, this was a deal we thought was worthwhile for us, and Justin Smoak was one of the guys we identified," Zduriencik said. "That's why we did the deal today.
"We asked for this player at the very beginning, quite honestly."
The Rangers weren't willing to part with Smoak initially, and several other teams -- including the Mets and Twins -- were interested but couldn't reach a deal. The Yankees looked poised to bring Lee from Safeco Field's home clubhouse to the visitor's side before the second game of their four-game series, but talks stalled.
Zduriencik declined to specify what went sour with other teams but said if the Rangers hadn't made this offer, an agreement with another club would likely have been solidified Friday as there were "very entertaining deals on the table."
Smoak's arrival will cause some changes in the roster. Manager Don Wakamatsu said Smoak will become the everyday first baseman, a position where seven players have started this season. Casey Kotchman is the current mainstay, with Russell Branyan at designated hitter, but things will be more complicated when Milton Bradley returns from a sore knee.
"This deal just went down. There's a lot of things we have to ponder and figure out what's best to put on the field every day to win a ballgame," Wakamatsu said. "Talking to some of the players on [the Rangers], they say [Smoak is] a tremendous teammate and great competitor, all the things you want in a guy that's going to hopefully be a mainstay in your organization. The reports come very high."
Beavan, Lawson and Lueke will all head to Double-A West Tennessee from Texas' Double-A club, where Beavan went 10-5 with a 2.78 ERA in 17 starts, Lueke posted a 3.86 ERA in 15 relief outings and Lawson hit .277 with seven homers, 16 doubles and 34 RBIs.
The trade marks a bittersweet end to the Lee era in Seattle, where he led a rotation that has posted a 2.65 ERA in its last 19 games. He was named AL Pitcher of the Month for June, when he went 4-1 with a 1.76 ERA and four complete games.
"My experience in Seattle has been great," Lee said. "Great fans and great teammates, I love the guys. Unbelievable, the weather is just starting to get nice and I'm gone. It's been a good ride. Obviously, we would have liked to win more games. I don't think anyone in Spring Training when we got here expected it to turn out the way it has, but it is what it is.
"That's the nature of the game. When you aren't playing as well, things like this happen. I've been in this situation a few times, and it is what it is. I'm a Texas Ranger now, and I'm going to go there and try to help that team win."