Cliff Lee and agent Darek Braunecker kept planting seeds.
The lefthander who never wanted to leave Philadelphia kept telling his former teammates that he wanted to rejoin them even as he played for Seattle, moved on to Texas, and reached a second consecutive World Series in October.
Shortly after Lee's Rangers fell to the San Francisco Giants, Braunecker had a conversation with Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock. The agent's message: Lee really wanted to sign with the Phillies.
Ruben Amaro Jr., the general manager who traded Lee to Seattle and acquired Roy Halladay from Toronto exactly one year ago, liked the idea but realized he was dealing with serious budget constraints. The Phillies' payroll already was bursting at the seams, and they had an offer on the table to rightfielder Jayson Werth, their own free agent, who signed with the Washington Nationals earlier this month.
"We kind of stayed out on the periphery because we knew there was going to be some aggressive suitors [for Lee] out there and we were dealing with the Werth issue," Amaro said Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park after the Phillies made Lee's stunning return to Philadelphia official. "A couple of weeks after the World Series, we made an offer to Jayson and we waited for a while to see how that would pan out."
In the meantime, Amaro and the Phillies' decision-makers held a series of meetings to discuss which way they would go if they had a chance to get either Werth or Lee.
"Frankly, I'll be honest with you, I didn't think we had a snowball's chance in hell of bringing [Lee] back, as far as the contract," Amaro said.
That feeling still existed a week ago when Amaro and the rest of the Phillies' brass departed from the winter meetings in Florida, but Braunecker kept planting the seed even as the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers pleaded for his client's services.
"After [Braunecker] left the winter meetings and they had their meetings with New York and Texas, we got indications from Darek that when it was all said and done, the place where [Lee] wanted to be was in Philadelphia," Amaro said.
The Phillies' general manager met with team president David Montgomery and called his predecessor, Pat Gillick, to discuss making Lee and Braunecker a proposal.
"We decided to go from kind of dipping our toe in it . . . to putting our feet in," Amaro said. "Clearly, it was going to be a challenge for us. We debated for a long time about the length of the contract. I talked with Pat Gillick about it because he is a guy who doesn't like to go past three years [on pitching contracts]. That has been his policy, and it has been ours for a while."
Lee, the Phillies decided, was worth making an exception.
By Friday night, Braunecker had an offer from the Phillies that he relayed to Lee before a dinner date between their families in Arkansas.
"It's hard to ever tell how excited Cliff is about anything because he's pretty stoic, but I saw it in his eyes," Braunecker said. "I know him. He and [Lee's wife] Kristen are like family to us. We spend a considerable amount of time together, and when he feels something, I can see it in his eyes."
It was not dollar signs in Lee's eyes. The biggest offer, predictably, was coming from the Yankees. The Phillies, in fact, asked whether the five-year, $120 million deal could be backloaded to account for some of the team's bigger salaries in 2011. Lee, 32, will make $11 million in his first season. The deal increases to $21.5 million in 2012, and $25 million in each of the final three seasons.
The team has a $27.5 million option for a sixth season that includes a $12.5 million buyout.
"His number that first year is a lot lower than years two, three, and four because we have some pretty significant commitments in year one," Montgomery said. "The sense is they wanted to find ways to be here and they asked us what the parameters would be, and we said it was important that we continue with the previous commitments we made and see if we could fit Cliff into that."
Lee wanted to make it fit.
"It felt good to get that offer," the lefthander said. "It was definitely another real option. Any time you're in a position like that, the more real options you have, the better, especially when this one was from a team I had already played for and enjoyed every second of it."
The seed had sprouted. Once the Phillies had a comparable deal on the table, it did not take Lee long to make a decision.
"I never wanted to leave this place in the first place," he said. "To get an opportunity to come back and be part of this team and this pitching rotation is going to be something that is historic, I believe. I can't wait to get to spring training and get this going."
Here is the breakdown of Cliff Lee's five-year, $120 million contract, with an option for a sixth year:
2011: $11 million
2012: $21.5 million
2013: $25 million
2014: $25 million
2015: $25 million
2016: Club option for $27.5 million that becomes guaranteed if Lee pitches 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings combined in 2014-15. There is a $12.5 million buyout.