If the Seattle Mariners trade Cliff Lee before the 2010 trading deadline, he has made sure that the Mariners will get top value in return.

Lee has posted an historic start to his 2010 campaign. Over his first 10 starts, Lee has 67 strikeouts and only four walks. Since 1900, no pitcher has posted as many strikeouts with as few walks over his first 10 starts. Additionally, over his last five starts, Lee has put in five quality starts, three wins, two complete games, and a tidy 1.75 ERA.

With Lee pitching in top form, and the Mariners delving ever-deeper into the AL West basement (ignoring an unusual current three-game winning streak), it seems that Lee’s days as a Seattle Mariner are numbered.

As the Mariners enter trade negotiations (either publicly or privately), they need to decide when they will trade Cliff Lee and how much they will ask for in return.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, Cliff Lee’s contract expires at the end of 2010, making him a “rental” for the remainder of the season wherever he lands.

Lee’s rental status does not cripple his trade potential. As the 2008 C.C. Sabathia trade taught us, a team can acquire exceptional value for an ace even if his contract expires at the end of that year. In that trade, Cleveland acquired highly touted prospects Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley from Milwaukee in exchange for a half-season of service from Sabathia.

The Mariners enter this year’s trading market seeking top prospects in return for Cliff Lee. Last December, the Mariners traded away former first round pick Philippe Aumont to acquire Lee from Philadelphia. Ideally, the Mariners would acquire top-tier talent in return for dealing him away.

Speculation runs rampant over Lee’s possible destinations. Here is a quick list of potential buyers, and why each team could make a play for the crafty lefty in the coming weeks.


New York Mets

The Mets haven’t been shy about the fact that they want to acquire a top starter before this year’s trade deadline. Injuries have thinned out the Mets’ rotation. Kelvim Escobar suffered a season-ending injury, Oliver Perez created an injury to avoid walking batters, and John Maine recently headed to the disabled list with rotator cuff tendonitis.

The Mets’ greatest asset may be their ability to absorb a target’s salary. This leans towards the Mets signing Roy Oswalt, another free agent pitcher with a much higher contract than Cliff Lee, but the Mets have stated that they prefer Lee to the Astros ace.


Minnesota Twins

At 39-29, the Twins sit atop the AL Central, and all signs indicate that trend will continue. The Twins are dominating the AL Central, putting together a 17-9 (.654) against division opponents. Despite this success, the Twins still have holes to fill. The Twins’ most pressing need seems to be at third base, where the combination of Nick Punto and Brendan Harris is hitting .255 and .157 respectively. The Twins also seek to add another starter.

Luckily for the Twins, Target Field has been full this season, generating enough revenue to provide Minnesota with financial flexibility. It may not be enough flexibility to fill holes at starting pitching and third base, but if the Twins seek out a starter, Cliff Lee could be the choice.


New York Yankees

The Yankees are reportedly interested in Lee. Why? Well, why not? The Yankees are always major players, albeit their impact usually comes via free agency. The Mariners are asking for bats in return for Lee, and the Yankees feature top prospect catchers Jesus Montero and Austin Romine as trade bait.

The Yankees can undoubtedly absorb payroll, and depending on the volatility of implosion-waiting-to-happen Javier Vazquez, New York could make a move for Lee. Ideally, Major League Baseball would block this trade from happening. Why? Because a rotation featuring C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettite, and Phil Hughes should be illegal.

Cliff Lee’s most likely destination, if the Mariners put him on the market, appears to be the New York Mets. Nearly pronounced dead in mid-May, the Mets have surged into contention in the NL East with a recent eight-game winning streak.

The Mets want to add starting pitching, and have the financial flexibility to consider any possible acquisition. The question is whether they pursue Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, or another available starting pitcher.

Cliff Lee has shown he can dominate the NL East in both the regular season and postseason. The Mets have voiced a clear preference for his services, and now face the difficult task of working out a deal with the Seattle Mariners if Lee is made available.


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