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Tim Cowlishaw: Lee's return to Phils a small victory for AL

DALLAS - The Rangers suffered a significant hit when they lost Cliff Lee late Monday night. But did they win a little something in the process?

DALLAS - The Rangers suffered a significant hit when they lost Cliff Lee late Monday night. But did they win a little something in the process?

Lee stunned the Rangers and, undoubtedly, the New York Yankees on Monday when he agreed to what is reportedly a five-year deal to return to the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Yankees, shut out for eight innings by Lee in Game 3 of the ALCS and beaten by him twice as a Phillie in the 2009 World Series, offered him seven years.

The Rangers went to the mat as well, offering a six-year deal with a vesting option for a seventh. But Lee called the Rangers late Monday to tell them he was going back to the National League.

The fact that he's not settling into pinstripes has to be considered a small victory for the Rangers . . . and all the other AL contenders.

Until Monday - until fairly late Monday really - the entire focus had been on the Yankees and Rangers, although a "mystery third team" in the bidding had not been identified.

"That definitely was the conventional wisdom, that it was between us and the Yankees," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "And that was certainly our expectation for a time.

"Cliff called me tonight and kind of walked through the decision. He feels he has kind of a unique opportunity to be part of that rotation. We made a real offer, a substantial offer. People talk about things not being about the money, but I think this is one case where it really wasn't about the money."

Daniels said the Rangers have been prepared for some time to move forward without Lee. That was mostly with the notion that the Yankees and their seemingly limitless payroll would land the 32-year-old lefthander.

Instead, he goes to the National League, which means that New York isn't nearly as scary as it would have been had the Yankees been able to stack Lee next to CC Sabathia in its rotation.

"You're not going to see us make a panic reactionary move," Daniels said. "We certainly knew it was a possibility that we wouldn't get him. We still really like our club.

"Would we like it better with Cliff? Of course we would. But the off-season is just getting under way."

Without Lee, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis figure to be the top two starters in manager Ron Washington's rotation. That's not bad. It was good enough to win the AL West in 2010 because the Rangers had the division all but locked up before swinging the July trade that sent Justin Smoak to Seattle for Lee.

Lee did his best work for Texas in the postseason, beating Tampa Bay and the Rays' ace David Price in Games 1 and 5, then shutting down New York in Yankee Stadium in Game 3.

But he was roughed up by San Francisco and outpitched by the Giants' Tim Lincecum in the World Series in Games 1 and 5 as the Rangers fell short of their goal.

There is no question the Rangers need to upgrade their rotation before the season begins, but there are ways to go about it. Trading for Kansas City's Zack Greinke is one, although the Royals will be seeking an expensive package of prospects.

I like the idea of finding a way to get Matt Garza from the cash-strapped Tampa Bay franchise. But those are things that will play out over the next few days and weeks.

For now, the Cliff Lee Era in Arlington is over.

He was an expensive but worthwhile rental. Even if the Rangers did not get World Series rings, they and their fans got their first real taste of postseason success. Lee was their most important player in providing that success, and if that cost the team Smoak, so be it.

Meanwhile the Phillies move forward with an unreal rotation of Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. That's not the Rangers' problem, at least not until late October.

Now they have to look for a new and creative way to get back there.