MORE THAN ONCE during baseball's winter meetings that ended last week in the shadow of Disney World, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was asked how much he had to spend on his 2011 payroll.
Each time he did a nifty sidestep, saying something to the effect that it was really hard to say, that he had some flexibility, that it sort of depended on the player, etc.
In that sense, the story that broke around midnight Monday - that the Phillies were the so-called mystery team that won the bidding for free-agent lefthander Cliff Lee - made some sense. It had always been assumed that they at least were monitoring the market for the lefthander who pitched so brilliantly for them in the 2009 postseason after being acquired from the Cleveland Indians just before the trading deadline.
It seems they did more than watch from the sideline, and now they have a dream rotation of Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Lee is getting a reported 5-year, $100 million deal, with a vesting option for a sixth year that could raise the total to $120 million.
Circumstantial evidence fanned the flames of conjecture. Lee took his time about making his decision, leaving the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers in a holding pattern. He truly agonized over whether to take the reported 7-year, $160 million offer the Yankees put on the table or stay closer to his Arkansas home for slightly less from the Rangers, a team he helped make it to the World Series for the first time in franchise history this year.
In the end, according to reports, he is taking considerably less than the Yankees offered, but will play for a team he likes.
Details were sketchy about how they will make this work, but some scenarios have had the Phillies trying to offload some payroll, including shopping righthander Joe Blanton, who is owed $17 million in the final 2 years of his current deal, outfielder Raul Ibanez and righthander Kyle Kendrick.
Lee made no secret of the fact that he enjoyed his time with the Phillies, for whom he went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA. He was genuinely shocked and dismayed when the deal that brought Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays last offseason was coupled with the decision to trade him to the Seattle Mariners for three minor leaguers.
Obviously, he did not buy the arguments about landing a huge contract. He was in a position to make his first real big score. He's 32 years old. Logic dictated that he'd want to get all the money for all the years he possibly can get.
The Phillies' team policy has been not to commit to more than 3 years for a pitcher. That's what they did with Halladay when he agreed to a 3-year, $60 million extension to waive his no-trade clause in Toronto and come to Philadelphia last year.
Now, how high does that set the bar when Hamels becomes a free agent after the 2012 season?
Before this blockbuster deal, the Phillies seemed to count their pennies carefully. It's expected that they'll announce the signing of veteran lefthanded reliever Dennys Reyes to a contract that guarantees him somewhere around $1.25 million rather than pursuing higher-priced options such as Scott Downs or Pedro Feliciano. They didn't sign Jeff Francoeur; Kansas City did. Kansas City!
No one knows for sure yet, but Amaro apparently hoarded some spare change on the off chance Lee decided to become one of the rare free agents in memory to accept well below what he could have gotten elsewhere simply to play with the team he preferred.
It's not the first time in Phillies history a payroll exception was made for a singular player. They did it with Gregg Jefferies before the 1995 season. They did it for Jim Thome going into 2003.
And if they were going to do it again this year, they might as well do it for Lee.
Still, at the end of the day, when the final totals are announced and the grounds crew comes out to rake the field one last time and the crowd starts to shuffle out of the stadium, it comes down to this:
The Phillies are giving Lee a way bigger contract for a pitcher than they've ever shown an inclination to do. And Lee is taking way less than he could have gotten from the Yankees or Rangers. *