The Phillies seemingly came out of nowhere in the Lee sweepstakes, which notably included the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. In the end, Lee left money on the table to return to Philadelphia, where he pitched in the second half of the 2009 season before the Phils traded him to the Seattle Mariners last December. The Yankees offered Lee a six-year, $138 million contract with a vesting option that increased the value to $154 million, according to ESPN.com.
The Phillies will enter the 2011 season with Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in what unquestionably is the best rotation in baseball.
Phils players' cell phones rang and buzzed throughout the night as word spread.
"We're like, 'Whoa,'" center fielder Shane Victorino said. "I had heard about this mystery team. I was like, 'There's no way it's us.' Then I heard the Phillies were back in it. I texted Cliff last week and he never said anything. I texted him again today when everything started coming out. I'm like, 'Come on.' He finally texted me back, 'I'm back,' and I was like, 'Oh my goodness.' I thought there was no way we're bringing him back.
"You hear about a deal like this and you're kind of shocked. But this shows how much Cliff loved Philly. He turned down money to come back. That says a lot about him."
The Phillies traded Lee last December because they considered him a long shot to sign a contract extension. Believing they would not re-sign him, Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. orchestrated a bold trade. He sent three top prospects to the Toronto Blue Jays for Halladay, who waived his no-trade clause and signed a three-year, $60 million contract to join Philadelphia. The Phillies, who were concerned about depleting their farm system, as well as an escalating payroll, then shipped Lee to the Mariners for three prospects.
The Phils tried to get Lee back in July without success. They got Oswalt instead.
The Phillies eventually lost to the Giants in the National League Championship Series and there were immediate indications Philadelphia would make a push to sign Lee at the expense of outfielder Jayson Werth, who just last week signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals.
The Phillies already had committed a franchise record $150 million to 17 players before the contracts to Lee and left-hander Dennys Reyes, who has agreed to a $1.1 million contract. It is a certainty Amaro asked Phils ownership to make an exception for Lee, who pushes the organization well over its budget.
But the Phillies still might have to cut payroll to make room for Lee. A source said Philadelphia has been shopping Joe Blanton in recent days. The source said the Phils would be willing to eat some of Blanton's salary to foster a trade. He is owed $17 million over the next two seasons.
The source also said the Phillies have been gauging teams' interest in Kyle Kendrick and Raul Ibanez, who makes $11.5 million this season before becoming a free agent.
Amaro said last week they would make special exceptions for special players when it came to their payroll.
Lee is that type of player.
Lee simply loved his short time in Philadelphia and always wanted to come back. He was stunned when the Phillies traded him and frequently communicated to his former teammates how badly he wanted to return.
"He felt a link to our team," said Victorino, who texted Lee throughout the season. "He missed our team. He knew how fun the clubhouse was. I'm sure that came into play."
Lee, who led the Rangers to the 2010 World Series, called the Rangers to inform them of his decision. Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, reportedly called the Yankees.
"Cliff called me," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said late Monday night. "He was very classy. He was very appreciative of the time he was here and how he was treated. He and his family enjoyed his time here. He also enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and liked some of the things that opportunity had to offer.
"We would have liked to have him back, but we weren't able to find terms that made sense. Cliff will always be a part of the most exciting and special year in Rangers history. It's time to move on and look at a variety of ways to improve the club."