In a shocking turnabout, Phillies land Lee

Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees and Rangers for the team he led to the 2009 World Series, the Phillies

Faced with a decision to sign with the New York Yankees or the Texas Rangers, Cliff Lee(notes) has made his choice:

Neither.

The Philadelphia Phillies, who only a year ago dismayed their fans by trading away Lee in the name of organizational depth, rallied to reach an agreement with the ace left-hander and emerge with the deepest rotation in baseball, sources said Monday night. Sources indicated the deal was for five years and $120 million, with a vesting option for a sixth year that would pay him a maximum of $135 million, less than he could have gotten from the Yankees or Rangers.

The Rangers, the team Lee helped to the World Series in October, offered Lee a six-year, $138 million deal with a vesting option for a seventh year that could have hiked the deal to $161 million. The Yankees also offered six years and $138 million, with a seventh-year player option for an additional $16 million.

Operating in stealth mode through the weekend, the Phillies added Lee to a staff that already held Roy Halladay(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes). Last Dec. 16, the club traded for Halladay, then, despite the promise of Lee following Halladay – or vice versa – in the rotation, moved Lee to Seattle. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. eventually filled a predictable gap in the pitching staff by acquiring Oswalt in midsummer.

[Funny photos: Barrista hands message in mocha to Lee]

Lee was 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA in 12 starts for the Phillies in the summer of 2009, and that fall began to build an October reputation. He was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts, including two wins in two starts against the Yankees.

Only peripherally connected to Lee when the offseason began, the Phillies had some payroll drop off when outfielder Jayson Werth(notes) left for Washington and pitcher Jamie Moyer(notes) left for rehab. Still, they weren’t considered serious contenders until late in the free-agent process, when Lee was in Arkansas considering mammoth contract offers from the Yankees and Rangers.

[Related: Teammate’s text of advice to Cliff Lee]

The Yankees were believed to have offered a contract in the range of $160 million over seven seasons, which would have challenged the largest contracts ever awarded to a pitcher. The Rangers, who had ridden Lee to the first World Series in team history, offered somewhat less, but were thought to be Lee’s sentimental favorite.

Turns out the Phillies might have been his fondest memory. And the Yankees and Rangers must come to terms with a Lee-less future.

In a thin market for starters, the Yankees had counted on their financial might to draw Lee, the only available ace. Now they move ahead with CC Sabathia(notes) as their clear best, followed by unknown quantities. A.J. Burnett(notes) was terrible in 2010, Andy Pettitte(notes) is considering retirement and Phil Hughes(notes) tailed off in the second half. Ultimately, the Yankees lost in the American League Championship Series because they could not pitch with the Rangers, whose ace was Lee.

[Related: Did the Phillies really need to sign Cliff Lee?]

Additionally, Lee is the first major free agent in recent memory to be targeted by the Yankees and to ultimately reject them. The Yankee dollar generally does not take no for an answer. This, only months after the Rangers outbid the Yankees for Lee at the trading deadline.

Now the Rangers know rejection, too. They’d counted on Lee, but to continue newfound momentum they’ll have to find that elsewhere.

The Rangers last summer were Lee’s fourth team since July 2009, since he followed Sabathia out of Cleveland, his growing salary and talented left arm casting him from there to Philadelphia to Seattle and then to Texas in barely a year.

The vagabond professional life followed Lee’s near disastrous 2007, then his Cy Young Award in 2008, a remarkable transition that set into motion two eventualities: 1. His mechanics became consistent, repeatable, making him a reliable winner because his command and deception are as good as any pitcher in the game. 2. He’d become very rich.

An Arkansas native who was charmed by the rise of the Rangers before a community that filled the stadium and bought up claw-and-antler T-shirts and was carried away by its first World Series, Lee nonetheless took up free agency with a cool reserve.

He is 32 years old. He’s seen what the end of a career looks like, in ’07, when he was dismissed to the minor leagues and left off an Indians postseason roster that played to within a win of the World Series. So, yeah, he told everyone how much he enjoyed his four months in Texas, and laughed when a reporter suggested during the World Series all that was left was to hire a realtor – “Uh, something like that,” Lee responded with a smile – and thrilled the locals when he stopped on his way out of town to buy a couple pairs of cowboy boots. Cowboy boots! He’s staying!

Turned out, they also wear cowboy boots in Arkansas. So, the people of the Metroplex waited. As did the people of New York, and then Philadelphia.

Healthy and happy and surrounded by enough runs, Lee could make the difference between an early fall flameout and a World Series appearance.

The Phillies had traded Lee and lost in the National League Championship Series. The Yankees had failed to acquire Lee at the trading deadline – the Rangers leapt in the 11th hour – and lost in the ALCS. And the Rangers, with Lee out front, advanced.

Now the Phillies step forward again, with Lee and for quite a long time.