By Jim Salisbury
In yet another example of how far the Phillies have come as a franchiseand a destination spot for premier players, the team agreed on afive-year contract with free-agent left-hander Cliff Lee late Mondaynight, a person with knowledge of the deal said.
Yes, Cliff Leeis coming back to the team that traded him away a year ago, the teamfor which he dazzled in the 2009 postseason, the team that he neverwanted to leave.
Lee, 32, spurned huge offers from the TexasRangers and New York Yankees to rejoin the Phillies. His five-year dealis worth 120 million and includes an option for a sixth year.
The Yankees offer was for seven years and 148 million.
Leesreturn to the Phils creates the most powerful starting rotation in themajors. In addition to Lee, the Phillies have Roy Halladay, the 2010National League Cy Young winner, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.
Thesigning is also further proof as if any more was needed that thePhillies are one of the games elite franchises, a Goliath, as agentScott Boras called them at the winter meetings last week.
In alittle over a year, the Phils have traded for Lee, traded for Halladay,traded for Oswalt, and signed Lee. Halladay, by the way, had a no-tradeclause in Toronto and hand-picked the Phillies as the team for which hewanted to pitch.
Clearly, these arent Curt Schillings andScott Rolens Phillies anymore. The Phils, with their new winningtradition four straight National League East titles their string ofsellout crowds, and their willingness to pay top dollar for talent, area certifiable destination team for major-league ballplayers.
In a little more than a decade, the teams payroll has gone from 26 million to more than 160 million for the coming season.
WithLee coming back, at an average annual salary of 24 million, thePhillies will likely try to clear some salary by attempting to tradepitcher Joe Blanton or outfielder Raul Ibanez. Blanton is owed 17million through 2012. Ibanez is signed for 2011 at 11.5 million.
Fromthe beginning of this offseason, the Phillies had monitored Lees freeagency and hoped to get into the bidding provided his cost was withintheir price range. The Phils were thought to be out of the running whenthe Yankees pushed their offer upward.
But Lee never eliminatedthe Phillies. He had joined the Phillies in a trade from Cleveland inJuly 2009 and loved his brief time in Philadelphia. He let that beknown to Phillies management this winter. He expressed a strong desireto return and ownership made a payroll exception to sign him. The Philsalso had to break team policy and go five years on his contract. Inrecent years, the team had been reluctant to go more than three yearson a pitcher.
Lee, the 2008 American League Cy Young winner,went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA for the Phils in the 2009 postseason. The teamdealt him to Seattle in December 2009 as it acquired Halladay fromToronto.
Last summer, the Phils tacitly admitted that tradingLee away was a mistake as it tried to get him back in July. Seattlewould not part with Lee unless the Phils included top prospect DomonicBrown in the deal. The Phillies refused and acquired Oswalt instead.
Fivemonths later, the Phils have signed Lee off the free-agent market. Theyhave righted their mistake and engineered what on paper looks to be oneof the greatest starting pitching rotations in the history of the game.
E-mail Jim Salisbury at email@example.com.