NEW YORK -- Jack Wilson popped out to end the top of the fourth inning Tuesday night. Before the ball had even settled into Francisco Cervelli's glove there was Cliff Lee bounding up the steps of the Mariners dugout.
Lee wasn't walking; he ran to the Yankee Stadium mound, grabbed the ball next to the rubber and turned around, ready to begin his warm-up pitches even before most of his teammates had made it halfway on to the field.
Lee looked comfortable and at ease, a demeanor not all pitchers are able to put forth when they're playing in New York. Of course, if the ever-increasing speculation is true, it's very possible that Lee will be pitching in New York much more frequently in the second half of the season.
Here's the thing though: Although the Mets are, understandably, getting most of the attention when it comes to potential landing spots for the Mariners left-hander, Citi Field isn't the only metropolitan ballpark that makes sense as a new home for Lee. As always, the specter of the Yankees looms over the Lee trade talks, too. And it should.
At first glance, it seems like the Yankees shouldn't (or wouldn't want to be) involved. They have five healthy starters who, for the most part, have been a strength for them this season. They also are the prohibitive favorites to land Lee in the offseason when he hits free agency and would cost them only money.
So why would they go after Lee now?
Simple: He could help them win.
This isn't about Phil Hughes getting knocked around by the Mariners on Tuesday and it isn't about A.J. Burnett's June from hell. It also isn't about Javier Vazquez's early-season struggles or Joba Chamberlain's inconsistency. It's about all of those things.
In the same way that Lee can be a difference-maker for the Mets -- who (correctly) see the National League as wide-open now, a landscape completely lacking a truly elite team that makes it possible for an adventurous GM to make a move that elevates his club -- the high bar in the American League puts pitching at an incredible premium, too.
Lee can tip the balance. There are, as always, those who look at the concept of the Yankees getting Lee and shriek, almost instinctively, "they don't need him!" Many then follow that up with, "but he'll cost too much!"
And sure -- the Yankees don't need him. Lee doesn't guarantee a World Series to the Yankees just like he wouldn't guarantee a playoff spot to the Mets. He just makes it more likely, especially since the Yankees pitchers have shown that -- to this point -- consistency isn't necessarily their strongest suit.
Even more, the (speculated) price for Lee really isn't unpalatable. The Mariners, reportedly, want a catching prospect as the centerpiece of the deal, and that's something of which the Yankees actually happen to have plenty. If the Mariners want to center a deal around Jesus Montero, why should the Yankees balk?
Worst-case scenario, the Yankees have given up a prospect who may or may not actually remain at catcher (and, if he moves to first base, he's got no way to the Majors with Mark Teixeira in front of him) and have given themselves an edge in signing Lee this offseason (assuming, of course, he won't grant them a window to discuss an extension right now).
Best case, the Yankes win the World Series with Lee stabilizing the rotation and allowing an easier decision on which starters strengthen the bullpen in the postseason, sign Lee to an extension and still have catching depth in their system with Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli -- not to mention the cash to find a catcher on the open market if they want to go that way. Doing a deal with Vazquez (and his expiring contract) to open up a rotation spot would seem to be a natural companion.
Sure, giving up prospects is always difficult and the Yankees have high opinions of Montero's potential. Yet that's all it is -- potential. And in the Bronx, winning right now has always been currency with the future running a distant second place. Lee can help the Yankees win this year; Montero can't.
In the end, if Lee does come to New York, it's likely he'll be heading to Queens. Just don't rule out a return to the Bronx. Tuesday's complete game was just another reminder about what he could mean for the Yankees, too.