A poker player’s main objective is to force his opponents to make bad decisions.
In the poker game that is Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees effectively have the biggest chip stack. And when it came to Cliff Lee, New York used its financial leverage the same way it always does.
When it seemed all but certain that the Yankees were going to acquire Lee from the Mariners for catching prospect Jesus Montero (and some lesser-known minor leaguers), the rest of the contenders in the American League immediately started fumbling for a way to stop the trade.
Enter the Texas Rangers. Desperately in need of an ace starting pitcher to supplement a world-class offense, Texas GM Jon Daniels decided that allowing Lee to go to the Yankees would be too devastating to his club. After all, the Rangers are in first place in the AL West and could likely face off against the defending world champions in the postseason.
So Daniels did what he had to do to get Lee. The Rangers traded highly touted first-base prospect Justin Smoak, along with minor leaguers Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matthew Lawson to the Mariners for Lee and reliever Mark Lowe.
The move will certainly help the Rangers in 2010. Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young winner, is one of the best pitchers in baseball. In 2010, the southpaw is 8-4 with a 2.64 ERA (good for third in the AL) and a league-leading 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Lee also has shown what he can do for a contending team down the stretch, specifically one that traded for his services at the July 31 trade deadline. In 2009, Lee went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA and three complete games in 12 starts for the Phillies, after Philadelphia brought him in from Cleveland on July 29. Lee went on to go 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the playoffs, including two wins against the Yankees in the World Series.
But by trading for Lee, Texas has cleared out a chunk of its minor league system and will need to win the World Series in order for the trade to be a success.
Lee is a free agent after the year, and there is no way that the Rangers, who are in more financial turmoil than MC Hammer in the early 1990s, can afford to give the lefty the long-term deal that he will command on the open market.
Texas lost Smoak, its 2008 first-round pick (11th overall) in acquiring Lee, and that could come back to hurt this team in the long run, when aging stars Vladimir Guerrero and Michael Young start to hit their twilight years.
This is certainly not the first time that the Yankees have used their bidding power to force other teams into making hasty, uncalculated decisions.
In 2008, the Milwaukee Brewers traded four top prospects to the Indians for CC Sabathia, in hopes that the 2007 AL Cy Young winner would lead them to the promised land. At the time, the Yankees were among the major contenders to acquire the lefty.
Sabathia was indeed as good as advertised for Milwaukee, but his new team failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs, and that was the end of his career as a Brewer.
The Yankees gobbled up Sabathia the following offseason in free agency, and it looks as if they will do the same with Lee after the 2010 campaign.
In the meantime, Texas is going "all-in" in 2010, hoping that Lee can do for them what Sabathia was unable to do for the Brewers.
The Yankees, meanwhile, are sitting on a mountain of chips and playing their cards — and their opponents — as well as ever.