On a frigid December day, Phillie fans have their thoughts on April and July and, most of all, October, as Cliff Lee signs a 5-year deal to help form (arguably) the best starting rotation in the history of baseball. The signing came out of absolutely nowhere last night. It seemed like just a couple hours elapsed between the time the reports came out saying the Phillies were in the bidding and the time word leaked that he had signed with the team. Suddenly, the Phillies brushed aside the Red Sox/Crawford/Gonzalez moves and the Jayson Werth/Nationals signing to become THE story of this baseball offseason. And they did it almost exactly a year after they became THE story of last offseason by trading for Roy Halladay and trading Lee to Seattle.
Times certainly have changed. The first sign that we were operating in a new Phillies era may have been when they traded for Lee in July of ’09. Now, with the free agent signing of the same pitcher, the transformation may be complete. The Phillies just beat out the Yankees for the most sought-after free agent on the market.
Of course, they couldn’t match the Yankees offer in terms of years and dollars but, incredibly, that didn’t matter to Lee. Ruben Amaro will get a ton of credit for the signing, and deservedly so, but I can’t help but think that even more credit goes to the players on the team, to Charlie Manuel, and even to the fans of Philadelphia. At some point, either Lee or his agent must have informed Amaro that Lee was willing to take less money than the Yankees or Rangers were offering to play for the Phils. Amaro, to his great credit, jumped at the opportunity when it fell in his lap.
But, why was Lee willing to take less money? He spent half a year as a Phillie, and he’s from Arkansas. To me, this decision is a validation of the culture of professionalism and teamwork that we’ve come to expect from our Phillies. Of course, we love the team and see something special in guys like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, and Ryan Howard, but we’re biased. Cliff Lee just stood up and announced to the world: there’s something special about this Phillies team and organization and city, and I’m willing to sacrifice $30 million to be a part of it.
Not only is that sentiment incredible, but now we get to root for a guy who is not only supremely talented, but who clearly wants to be here badly. He didn’t just want to be a hired gun that went and helped deliver a 28th championship to the Yankees. He wants to be part of team that, apparently, is truly a team. And he wants to play for Charlie Manuel. And he wants to play in front of the fans of Philadelphia.
How this signing impacts the team will be dissected many times over between now and April. For now, here’s what the signing means: if the Yankees had signed Lee, the Phillies were probably the third best team in baseball after the Yanks and Sox. By taking Lee away from the Bronx, the Phils catapult into the top seat. Yes, they were there last year too and didn’t win it all, but where else would you rather be?
Welcome back, Mr. Lee. We are very happy to have you.