Boston could have given Carl Crawford twice the $142 million they did, and that story wouldn’t have been bigger. In a move nearly as shocking as Harry Frazee’s selling Babe Ruth so that he could put on No, No Nanette, the Philadelphia Phillies jolted a suddenly much happier fan base by signing the grand prize of the 2010 free agent market, their former ace, lefthander Cliff Lee. Widely thought to be debating a return to the Texas Rangers or a very lucrative move to the New York Yankees, Lee will join a rotation that is arguably the best ever assembled. For 2011, the Phillies will run out Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and well, apparently there’s no truth to the rumor that their fifth starter will be Jamie Moyer throwing right-handed, but it doesn’t really matter. Not since the Baltimore Orioles sent out Jim Palmer, DaveMcNally, Pat Dobson, and Mike Cueller, all 20-game winners in 1971, have opposing hitters looked forward to facing a more difficult staff. Philly’s staff now includes a two-time Cy Young Award winner who threw two no-hitters in 2010 (Halladay), a Yankee killer (Lee), a pitcher five times in the top five in Cy Young voting (Oswalt), and a World Series MVP (Hamels).
Lee’s contract reportedly calls for $100 million for five years, perhaps the most surprising part of this story , since the Rangers and Yankees were widely reported to have been offering six and seven-year deals, respectively, that were in the $150-165 million range. The deal will be done as soon as the hurler passes a pro forma physical.
In returning to a city where fans still have newspaper posters of him taped to game room walls, Lee will attempt to build on his status as the consensus most popular short-tenure Philadelphia athlete in any sport. His lifetime record is 102-61 (3.85 ERA), and until he lost back-to-back games to the San Francisco Giants in this year’s World Series, he had held the best post-season record for anyone who had pitched in more than one October Tournament. His current post-season numbers are still more than somewhat intimidating: 7-2 / 2.13 ERA.
The trade for Lee comes at a time when Phillies fans had begun to grumble about the team’s general manager, Ruben Amaro, Jr., a result of an extremely large contract given to slugger Ryan Howard this past April, Howard’s diminished numbers this season, and the Phils’ missing what seemed (to some) a lock to compete in a third straight World Series.
Amaro, however, has been a GM full of big-name surprises during his tenure. First, he traded for Lee instead of Halladay in 2009; then he traded Lee away when he was still under contract at the end of that season. Then he finally traded for Halladay, then Oswalt, and now Lee again. By the time he’s done, Amaro may well have made George Steinbrenner’s hiring and firing of Billy Martin sixteen times look fairly pedestrian.
Bringing back Lee will also, doubtless, touch off a number of ‘told you so” remarks in taprooms all over the Delaware Valley. These discussions will all begin with: “See, I told you they had the money….” However, the tone of those discussions will be light-hearted since, as most baseball fans know, good pitching beats good hitting, and the Phillies pitching as of this morning (Christmas on December 14th) is really, really good.
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McKee, Don. “Surprise: Phils Bringing Back Lee.” The Philadelphia Inquirer 14 December 2010: D1.
“Roy Oswalt.” Baseball-Reference.com. 14 December 2010.
Stark, Jayson. “Phillies, Howard have come a long way.” ESPN.com. 27 April 2010.