The Case for Keeping Cliff Lee

Should such happiness be forgotten so soon?
For baseball purists, the Mariners home sweep of the heavy-hitting Cincinnati Reds this past weekend, in which Seattle's pitchers yielded a total of one run over three games while scoring a mere seven, was as good as it gets, and provided a glimpse of how this season could have gone, had the sport prophets been correct.

Just like last year, when they far exceeded preseason prognostications, the M's are constructed to live and die (live, ideally) in the throes of close games. Which begs the question: Is trading free-agent-to-be Cliff Lee, who pitched a complete-game shutout Friday (Felix Hernandez gave up the lone run in the series during a complete-game win Saturday), to a contender before the deadline really the inevitability everyone thinks it is?

Steve Kelley provides a perfectly sane argument for roster implosion in today's Times, preaching patience in what he believes will be a tedious rebuilding process and preparing Mariner fans for the departure of not only Lee, but closer David Aardsma as well. He also correctly points out that Mariner brass "quit before the job was done" by not splurging for a slugger like Vlad Guerrero, who's been tearing it up for division winner Texas, to complement the likes of Chone Figgins, Guerrero's former teammate in Anaheim.

Hindsight's a beautiful thing in the sportswriting game. Yet here, Kelley's diagnosis is precise, if not comprehensive. The Mariners' starting pitching, save for Ryan Rowland-Smith, who earned his first win of the season Sunday, has been fantastic. Its bullpen, while heaps shakier than last year (especially Aardsma), has hardly been bad. Signees like Figgins, Milton Bradley, and Casey Krotchman (the "r" will remain in his last name until he eclipses the Mendoza line) are suffering through career-worst years at the plate (as was Ken Griffey before he retired), as is Jose Lopez. Surely flukishness has to be at least partially to blame for that.

If these performances are indeed anomalies, next year can't possibly be as miserable for the team offensively. With such rose-colored glasses firmly affixed to fans' heads, it stands to reason that simply righting this offseason's wrong--i.e., signing a slugger or two at a reasonable rate (bringing back Russell Branyan, whose exile to Cleveland is an underrated reason for the offense's demise, comes to mind)--might make the Mariners, whose margin of error was sure to be slight anyway, the contender everyone thought they'd be in 2011.

By that logic, the M's might be well served to roll the dice on Lee and sign him to a multi-year extension. But provided he's open to the idea, is Lee really that big of a dice roll? Granted, he has some injuries in his past, but doesn't part of you feel like you're watching a super-deluxe version of Jamie Moyer trot out to the mound every fifth day? Isn't that a guy worth opening your wallet for if you're serious about contending, short- or long-term?

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