The One That Got Away (Twice): An Oral History of the Yankees’ Near-Trade for Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee

Three pitches into the bottom of the first inning of the 2009 World Series, I knew the Yankees were in trouble. Derek Jeter fouled away a 90-mph fastball and then fouled away a 76-mph curveball. Down 0-2 in the count, Jeter swung through an 84-mph changeup. It was obvious Cliff Lee was on.

Johnny Damon followed Jeter’s strikeout with an ill-advised bunt attempt for an easy second out and Mark Teixeira did what he did for the majority of his postseason career with the Yankees and struck out swinging. The inning was over after 11 pitches in what was as easy of an inning of as you will ever see in the first inning of a World Series game, and it never got much better from there.

Lee went the distance, pitching the Phillies to a 1-0 series lead with aa complete-game win on the road. He allowed six hits, walked none and struck out 10. The lone run against him came in the ninth on his 114th pitch with the Yankees trailing 6-0.

I was nervous after the Yankees’ loss in Game 1. It had been six years since they had been in the World Series and nine years since they had won it, and here they were, completely shut down in Game 1 at home, needing to win Game 2 to avoid being down 0-2 with the next three games on the road.

Thankfully, after Lee, the Phillies’ rotation consisted of a 38-year-old Pedro Martinez whose velocity had left him long ago, Cole Hamels, who talked about wanting his season to be over, and Joe Blanton, who, well, he’s Joe Blanton, and you don’t want Joe Blanton starting a World Series game for you.

Lee provided the Phillies with their only two wins in the series in Games 1 and 5 as the combination of Martinez, Hamels and Blanton helped the Yankees’ to their 27th championship. The following season, Lee was a Mariner after having been traded to Seattle to open the door for the Phillies to trade for Roy Halladay. The Yankees appeared built to defend their championship with the franchise’s 28th, and that was even before the events of July 9 and July 10 when it was reported that they were going to acquire Lee from Seattle.

Unfortunately, the trade fell through, and Lee ended up going to Texas. A little over three months later, Lee was back on the Yankee Stadium mound shutting down the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS.

I left the Stadium following the Yankees’ Game 5 win of that series to pull close the series gap to 3-2, knowing that even if the Yankees could win Game 6 in Arlington, Lee was waiting for them in Game 7 and it was going to take an actual miracle to win that game.

The Yankees lost to the Rangers in six games, and it was probably better that way since Lee would have likely dominated them in Game 7 and losing a winner-take-all game to advance to the World Series to the starting pitcher you thought your team had traded for probably would have ruined my life in a way that could only be trumped by the 2004 ALCS.

The near-trade for Lee did still ruin my life though, as his presence in the Rangers’ rotation changed the course of that series and swung the AL pennant. He had been the difference in deciding the ALCS, and Brian Cashman’s reluctance to trade a couple of prospects, who never amounted to much for the Yankees, cost the Yankees a second straight trip to the World Series and potentially a second straight championship.

The Yankees haven’t won the World series since beating the Phillies in the non-Lee starts in 2009 and if they don’t win it this season, it will be nine years since their last championship, matching the lengthy drought from 2000-2009. That could have been avoided if the trade eight years ago had gone through.

Now that this season’s trade deadline is here, let’s go back eight years for an oral history of the near-trade that cost the Yankees the World Series with quotes from the prominent people involved in the actual trade and the reporting of the trade.

***

On the morning of July 10, I woke up, rolled over and grabbed my phone to find out the Yankees were close to acquiring Cliff Lee. I couldn’t believe it. It was the happiest non-game related moment of my life as a Yankees fan. The Yankees were going to get the best left-handed pitcher and the best postseason pitcher in the majors for a few prospects. The Yankees were going to win the World Series.

Joel Sherman, New York Post: Around 9 p.m. ET on July 8, Seattle agreed with the Yankees to accept Jesus Montero, David Adams and Zach McAllister for Cliff Lee, and the sides swapped medical info.

Chuck Armstrong, Mariners President: I went home Thursday night, thinking we had a deal with the Yankees. Pending an exchange of the physical information of the players involved. The next morning, when we got into the details of the physicals of the players involved, one of the players that was coming to us from the Yankees was disabled, and based upon the best medical information that our team medical director, Edward Khalfayan, had, he recommended that we not proceed.

At the time, no one knew who David Adams was. He was still three years away from making his Major League debut for the Yankees as part of the forgettable 2013 team.

Joel Sherman: Around 3 a.m. Zduriencik called Cashman to say Seattle’s team doctors were concerned about Adams’ right ankle.

Brian Cashman, Yankees General Manager: He’d been on the DL for two months and the Mariners were bugging me about him for a week. I finally said yes and it turned out they didn’t know he was hurt. They came back and asked for either Eduardo Nunez or Ivan Nova.

Adams would go on to bat .193/.252/.286 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 43 games in the majors, but it was his right ankle that was the first holdup in the Yankees’ trade for Lee. The second was Cashman’s unwillingness to trade Nunez or Nova.

Chuck Armstrong: Jack Zduriencik and his people then spent some time with the Yankees trying to come up with an alternative player, or players, to replace that player. Or even players to be named later. If we could come up with that. In the meantime, other clubs became involved. The White Sox, Minnesota and Texas to name a few.

Brian Cashman: We see Nunez as a starting shortstop in the big leagues, and Nova as a starting pitcher with great potential. I couldn’t do that for a three-month rental. There was no guarantee what would happen going forward. It was too much to give up.

Nunez ended up playing 270 games for the Yankees, batting .267/.313/.379 with 10 home runs and 76 RBIs and providing some of the worst infield defense anyone has ever seen, leading to the Yankees trying him in the outfield. Prior to the start of the 2014 season, the Yankees released Nunez, giving his roster spot to career minor leaguer Yangervis Solarte. Cashman’s infatuation with Nunez’s potential ultimately cost the Yankees a trip to the World Series, and though he wouldn’t include him in a trade for Lee, he eventually let him go for nothing.

Nova, on the other hand, actually had some quality seasons for the Yankees. He won 16 games in 2011, becoming the team’s most reliable starter heading into the postseason, where he would win the rain-suspended Game 1 of the ALDS over the Tigers before losing Game 5 in that series. He was bad in 2012 (12-8, 5.02 ERA), solid in 2013 (9-6, 3.10), horrible in 2014 (2-2, 8.27) before needing Tommy John surgery, bad upon his return in 2015 (6-11, 5.07) and bad again in 2016 (7-6, 4.90) before being traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline.

Two Cashman prospects that never lived up to their expected potential and the general manager’s reluctance to trade them turned out to be the difference in the ALCS.

Cliff Lee, The One That Got Away (Twice): Obviously, when I woke up this morning, the media had kind of caught on to something. It was all over SportsCenter and everything. I saw the Yankees and that it was on the verge of happening.

At 1:55 p.m. on July 9, Joel Sherman tweeted Lee had been traded to the Rangers. Justin Smoak would be the centerpiece of the Mariners’ return.

Jack Zduriencik, Mariners General Manager: We had a lot of talks with Texas and Smoak is the player that we desired. And they threw different things around and yes, there was a point in time this morning when, through the conversations, I said, ‘Look, there are other opportunities. If you want to do this deal, this is the player we want.’ And they said yes.

Cliff Lee: Obviously, I called CC Sabathia to see what he thought and if he knew anything. I called my agent. It seemed like it was real close. It nearly happened. But it’s not what happened. It’s definitely not what happened. I’m a Ranger now.

Jon Daniels, Rangers General Manager: Cliff was a No 1 guy on our board that we wanted to acquire. We haven’t won anything yet, but we feel like we’re in position to put our best foot forward. It’s going to be very competitive in our division.

Cliff Lee: They’ve got a great team, they’re in first place and I’m going to try and go there and do everything I can to help them head in the direction they’re heading. They’re already in a good spot, have a great team and I just want to be one of the guys.

Justin Smoak, Rangers/Mariners First Baseman: Lee is a great pitcher. They want to take it to the next level here. This can always happen in baseball. It’s tough, being new to this business. You think you’re going to be on a team for a while and then things change overnight.

Cliff Lee: It’s kind of like what happened last year going to Philly. They had a six-game lead or so and that’s a good place to be, and they got that without me having anything to do with it.

Jack Zduriencik: It was a pleasure to have Lee here. We all wish things would have gone a little better. We felt we were at the point where something had to be done for the long-term good of the organization.

Brian Cashman: They had a huge asset and a major decision and I have no problems with what they did.

Jack Zduriencik It’s hard for me to sit here and go into specifics. We had ongoing talks with several clubs. And at the end, when you’re finished and you go another direction, before you consummate a deal, you always go back and tell the other club, ‘Hey, look, this is the direction we’re going, this is the decision we made.’

Joel Sherman: In actuality, once Justin Smoak was put into the offer by Texas, it is possible the Yankees never had a second chance on Cliff Lee.

Jack Zduriencik There are issues here and there; we certainly do it. You never do a deal without exchanging medicals, and that was certainly an issue in this deal … A deal is not final until it is final.

Brian Cashman: We had him. We had a deal in principle pending physicals.

***

Prior to Game 6 of the ALCS with the Yankees facing elimination for the second straight game, Cashman spoke about his decision to hold on to Nunez and Nova, and reiterated his stance by saying, “It was too much for a rental.”

The Yankees lost the ALCS and then lost out again on Lee, as a free agent, in December when he chose to return to the Phillies, who had traded him to the Mariners. It was the second time in five months the baseball world expected Lee to become a Yankee, only to be spurned again. While the midseason trade that wasn’t was tough to take, Lee’s decision to not sign with the Yankees might have been more tough with CC Sabathia’s opt-out clause looming and Andy Pettitte headed for retirement. Lee had been the Yankees’ Plan A and really their only plan and he turned them down. In return, the Yankees’ 2011 rotation consisted of Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, and they would lose in five games to the Tigers in the ALDS.

I don’t think I will ever get over the near-trade for Lee and Cashman’s decision to not include Nunez or Nova to land the ALCS difference-maker. Actually, I know I won’t.