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How Cliff Lee learned to stop worrying and love the Phillies

December 15, 2010

Cliff Lee signed the largest ever annual contract awarded to a pitcher early Tuesday morning

Baseball’s always tumultuous offseason took an unexpected twist late last night when Cliff Lee, the left-handed pitcher who has been the game’s most effective mercenary since leaving Cleveland two summers ago, spurned the bright lights of New York and the prospect of being part of a Rangers dynasty in Arlington to return to the City of Brotherly Love.

Common knowledge around the game had been that Lee’s destination would either be the Big Apple or Texas, but that there was a “mysterious third team” in the running, as well, which turned out to be the Phillies. Evidently, Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro regretted trading Lee to the Seattle Mariners for a pile of not very good prospects before last season. By signing Lee, Amaro has created what could, completely without exaggeration, be the best rotation in baseball history.

Analysts, however, are making it sound like Lee took some great pay cut or made a sacrifice by not going to New York or staying close to his Arkansas home. After his vested option kicks in (which it likely will), Lee will be making $135 million over six seasons. That’s the highest annual contract to a pitcher in baseball history, not some kind of personal sacrifice. (It’s also worth noting that the Yankees offered $132 over six years, with a player option for $16 million in the seventh season. So the Phillies actually offered more money than New York.)

The real reason Lee went back to Philadelphia, a team he was miffed at after being part of the deal that brought Roy Halladay to town, is clear. Since leaving Cleveland, Lee has done nothing but win.

In Philly, he almost single-handedly carried the team to the World Series before being flipped to Seattle. After the team started slowly, Lee was sent to Texas, where he again played on a team that lost in the World Series.

The lanky lefthander had been painted as the consummate free agent mercenary — a cold-hearted, emotionless ace who would simply travel from place to place outperforming nearly every other pitcher in the game. Instead, we found out Tuesday at 12:04 a.m. that Lee just wants to be a winner and putting himself at the head of the Phillies’ rotation despite questions about a self-imposed payroll, a potentially patchwork bullpen and several position player free agents gives him the best chance to do that.

It all makes sense, and maybe it’s time to stop being surprised when big name players choose to avoid the Bronx Zoo.

(P.S. I’d expect Texas to make a hard play for both Zack Greinke and Adrian Beltre now. I still think Toronto has to be the likely landing spot for the pitcher, though, especially now that the Yankees’ rotation looks vulnerable enough that adding an ace could make Toronto the second power in the AL East.)

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