Few people thought that the Phillies were in the bidding for the services of the most coveted pitcher on the free-agent market.

That thinking, along with the landscape of the entire National League, changed drastically on Monday.

That's when general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. got on an airplane and met with Cliff Lee and his agent, Darek Braunecker, presumably in the pitcher's home state of Arkansas.

By the time the day was over, the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers, the teams tabbed as the favorites to land Lee, were being told that the 32-year-old lefthander was rejoining the Phillies. A baseball source said the announcement will become official Wednesday after Lee passes a physical. The Phillies, with the exception of a brief comment from manager Charlie Manuel at a public appearance, remained mostly silent about the 11th-hour coup pulled off by Amaro.

"It's a big deal for us," Manuel said Tuesday as he arrived at the Coatesville Veterans Administration Medical Center for a team event.

Not surprisingly, Lee's decision to sign a five-year deal worth a reported $120 million with the Phillies was greeted with great happiness across the region, but not so much in other cities with big-league baseball teams.

"There's no question it's the preeminent starting rotation in baseball right now," said Ed Wade, the Houston Astros' general manager. "The ability to add [Roy] Halladay followed by [Roy] Oswalt and followed by [Cliff] Lee, that's as significant as it can get. Our team went into Philadelphia and won four straight last year, but it's going to be tough to stretch that streak to seven out of the gate."

Wade's Astros will be the first team to face the Phillies' star-studded rotation, which also includes Cole Hamels, when the teams meet on opening day, April 1 at Citizens Bank Park.

"It's a huge commitment on the part of that organization to be able to do that," Wade said.

Since 2001, the Phillies' payroll has climbed from $41 million to about $142 million last season. With the addition of Lee, the Phillies' payroll figures to easily soar past $160 million next season.

In slightly more than two years since replacing Pat Gillick as general manager, Amaro has acquired Lee from the Cleveland Indians, Halladay from Toronto, Oswalt from Houston, and Lee again as a free agent.

That's a remarkable stockpile of pitching additions, not to mention a major investment. Full details of Lee's contract have not emerged, but if you take the $24 million average annual value of his deal and add it to the 2011 salaries of Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels, the Phillies will pay their four aces $69.5 million next season. That's more than the payroll of nine big-league teams from last season and nearly as much as the Phillies' payroll in 2003, the year they made their first big free-agent acquisition by signing first baseman Jim Thome.

Halladay, reached Tuesday through his agent, Greg Landry, told ESPN.com that he's looking forward to pitching with Lee and is "totally excited and pumped up" about the newest addition to the staff. "Roy used the word overjoyed," Landry said.

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins told ESPN Radio that he learned about the Lee signing in a text message from his mother late Monday night. Then he sent a text message to Amaro with his reaction.

"I said, 'Wow,' " Rollins said. "I picked up my phone and texted Ruben and said, 'Boy, you're sneaky.' "

Some of the Phillies' division rivals tried to downplay the addition of Lee to what was already one of the best starting rotations in baseball.

"To some extent, the fact that they signed someone to a five-year deal may change what they're able to do in years when we might be more active," first-year Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told reporters in New York.

"We used to have a hard time getting free agents to come here, so it seems to have changed 180 degrees," Phillies chairman Bill Giles told the Associated Press. "The ballpark has changed everything about the Phillies because we have the revenue, we have the fans."

Skeptics regarding the Lee signing - they are in the vast minority - point out that the Phillies' downfall during the 2010 season in general and the National League Championship Series against San Francisco in particular was a sputtering offense built around players who have all reached age 30 or beyond.

"I guess I don't agree with that premise," Wade said. "I still see the Phillies as a pretty balanced team with a formidable offense. Even without Jayson Werth, they have an offense that can beat you in a lot of different ways. They have power and they have speed. When you have Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Shane Victorino, those are some pretty good weapons you can roll out against anybody. I don't think they're going to start playing small ball."

And when you have Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels, chances are you're going to win quite a few baseball games.

The Contracts for the Four Aces

Roy Halladay

He is entering the first year of a three-year, $60 million contract extension he signed with the Phillies after being traded from Toronto Dec. 16, 2009.

He will be paid $20 million in each of the next three seasons, and there is a $20 million vesting option for 2014. The option becomes guaranteed if Halladay pitches 225 innings in 2013 or a combined 415 innings in 2012 and 2013 and he is not on the disabled list at the end of the season.

Cliff Lee

He agreed to a five-year, $120 million deal Monday night. The deal includes a $27.5 million vesting option in 2016 that becomes guaranteed if Lee pitches 200 innings in 2015 or a combined 400 innings in 2014-15. There is a $12.5 million buyout, and Lee has a limited no-trade clause.

Roy Oswalt

He is entering the final year of a five-year contract extension he signed with the Houston Astros in August 2006. He will make $16 million in 2011, and there is a club option for $16 million with a $2 million buyout in 2012. Oswalt may opt out of the 2012 option for a reduced buyout figure, and he has a full no-trade clause.

Cole Hamels

He is entering the final year of a three-year, $20.5 million contract extension he signed Jan. 18, 2009. He will make $9.5 million in 2011 and is eligible for salary arbitration after the season.

SOURCE: Cot's Contracts

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Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.