"He left money on the table."
On Wednesday, these six words were presented to the head of the 2010-11 free-agent class, ace lefty Cliff Lee, upon his decision to opt for employment with the Philadelphia Phillies rather than the Yankees.
"I guess I did," Lee said at a news conference, responding to the notion of leaving money on the table.
This is not a typical result in the free-agent scramble for megabucks. "There's plenty of money," was the way Lee saw it, and when a certain point was reached "enough's enough."
The Yankees will not be outbid, nor should they be, as baseball's largest producer of revenue. One way they can lose out is when the free agent in question is willing to take less money to play somewhere else. This is what happened with Lee, who towered over the rest of the field as the leading starting pitcher available on the open market this winter.
For the Yankees, this decision was an obvious disappointment. For the Phillies, it was a triumph, albeit a very expensive triumph. For the rest of the AL East it was a relief, just as it was a relief for the rest of the AL West that Lee did not choose the Texas Rangers. For the rest of the NL East it was a sign of competitive difficulty to come. For the rest of baseball's franchises it was basically kind of refreshing.
Lee agreed to a deal with the Phillies that will pay him $120 million over five years, with a vesting option for a sixth year that would bring the total to $135 million. The Yankees offered him $138 million over six years with a vesting option for a seventh year that would bring the total to $154 million. Some reports have placed the Yankees' six-year offer at a higher figure, but accepting the widely reported $138 million figure, yes, Lee left $18 million in guaranteed money on the table.
Why would Lee do that? Apart from his notion that "enough's enough," which seems to nicely describe $120 million over five years, there was this: He wanted to pitch for the Phillies. He thought that this situation offered him "the best chance to win championships."
He wanted, he said Wednesday, to join the wonderful starting rotation that already included Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. He had greatly enjoyed his time with the Phillies in 2009, when he helped them win a pennant and won two games in the World Series against the Yankees. He liked the ballpark environment in Philadelphia.
"Every game has an elevated feel to it," he said.
He felt comfortable being a member of the Phillies. He described the club as "a good group of guys, close-knit." He said his family was comfortable in Philadelphia. And there was this as a general statement of Cliff Lee's preferences:
"I prefer the National League style of baseball over the American League."
You can make that statement as large or small as you want. The vast majority of Lee's career has been spent in the AL. The relatively small, but successful slice of time he spent in the NL was pleasing to him. Maybe he likes to get out there and personally execute the sacrifice bunt. Maybe he likes to swing the bat himself. He hit .212 in 12 games with the Phillies, and he had two doubles. He's an athlete; maybe he thought he was being short-changed in the AL. Maybe he doesn't like the designated hitter. Why would he like the designated hitter?
With the Phillies, he'll be pitching his home games in a hitter-friendly park, but when you're as good as Cliff Lee, you can get beyond that. In the end, he obviously wanted to be a Phillie, and $120 million in guaranteed money said to him that the Phillies were returning the favor.
"I think for me to be here kind of says enough," Lee said.
And he was right again. If he felt some other way he would have been in the Bronx, or with the Rangers in Arlington. In fact, he more than once referred to his decision as "kind of a no-brainer."
Another pitcher, plenty of other pitchers, would have taken the Yankees' offer because it was the largest offer, end of story. The parallel to Lee appears to be Greg Maddux, who took less money in a long-term deal to pitch for the Atlanta Braves, instead of the Yankees, before the 1993 season. Maddux felt at the time that the Braves offered him a better chance to win. We can argue about the long-term merits of that call, but the Braves were in the midst of a stretch of 14 straight division titles, and Maddux put together a cinch Hall of Fame career. That decision worked for him.
The Yankees, of course, are much more of a perennial postseason team now than they were in 1993. Lee's theory, that the best chance to win championships was with the Phillies, will not rest easily upon the Yankees.
But Lee had his reasons, and that one was prominent among them. In the end, they were more important to him than the additional year and the additional money. He has demonstrated no fear of pitching in New York or anyplace else. It is not as though he accepted a deep discount in this transaction -- his annual compensation from the Phillies for the guaranteed five years will average $24 million, besting the $23 million annual average CC Sabathia gets from the Yankees, although Sabathia's total $161 million take will still be considerably larger.
In the end, this is the way another club can win a free-agent bidding contest against the Yankees. Cliff Lee really wanted to pitch for the Phillies, and he was willing to leave money, Yankees money, on the table.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.