PHILADELPHIA -- The buzz for one of the most anticipated seasons in Phillies history started the previous December in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at the same hotel that will host this year's Winter Meetings.Seven years ago, in the winter of 2010, the Phillies rekindled their relationship with Cliff Lee. The
PHILADELPHIA -- The buzz for one of the most anticipated seasons in Phillies history started the previous December in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at the same hotel that will host this year's Winter Meetings.
Seven years ago, in the winter of 2010, the Phillies rekindled their relationship with Cliff Lee. The Phillies dealt him to Seattle in December 2009 in a controversial trade intended to replenish their farm system following their prospect-laden Roy Halladay deal with Toronto. Lee left on bitter terms because the Phillies indicated just days earlier that they had no plans to trade him. But time passed, and Lee, who was the most coveted free agent on the market, said privately that he wished Philadelphia would try to bring him back.
The Phillies, who thought they could not compete with the Yankees or Rangers for Lee's services, caught wind of that wish before the Winter Meetings.
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Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, texted Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock, telling him that he would love to meet with the Phillies in Florida. Proefrock said the team would love to talk but told Braunecker that Philadelphia could not outbid New York or Texas.
But because they knew Lee secretly wanted to return to Philly, the Phillies held out a sliver of hope. And because they held out a sliver of hope, they tried to keep a low profile at the hotel hosting the Meetings. Proefrock remembers running into Braunecker once in the lobby. They shook hands and kept moving.
Reports started to surface that the Phillies could pursue Lee. Then-Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. vehemently denied it. Of course, he later acknowledged that he fibbed a little about their interest because he did not want the Yankees or Rangers to increase their offers.
Braunecker said he wanted teams to make offers during the Winter Meetings, so he could take them to Little Rock, Ark., meet with Lee and his wife, Kristen, and decide.
The Phillies never made an offer.
Braunecker met with the Lees on Dec. 8, the final full day of the Winter Meetings, to discuss offers from the Yankees and Rangers. Lee said he could be happy in Texas or New York, but again expressed his desire to have Philadelphia enter the bidding.
Braunecker called Proefrock shortly after the meeting and asked if the Phillies could jump in. Proefrock responded that he did not want to be used as leverage to get Texas and New York to increase their offers. Braunecker assured him that Lee's interest was sincere.
Braunecker asked if the Phillies would go five years.
"Would you even entertain five years?" Proefrock said, knowing the Yankees had a seven-year offer on the table.
"We'll entertain anything," Braunecker said.
Proefrock immediately sent an email to Phillies chairman David Montgomery -- then the club president -- making his case to sign Lee. Montgomery, Amaro and Proefrock met in Montgomery's office later on Dec. 9 at Citizens Bank Park, after Amaro and Proefrock returned from the Rule 5 Draft. Former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick was on speakerphone.
They agreed to make Lee a five-year, $115 million offer.
Braunecker and Proefrock went back and forth for a couple days. They were optimistic. Amaro called Halladay at home on Dec. 11. Halladay had sacrificed a lot of money to accept a trade to Philadelphia the previous offseason. Amaro wanted to make sure Halladay was OK with Lee getting a much better deal.
After Halladay responded enthusiastically to the idea of himself, Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in the same rotation, Amaro said he wanted to get Lee more than ever.
Negotiations went back and forth for the next two days, but things didn't look promising since the Phillies simply couldn't come close to the Yankees. But then Montgomery, looking at the difference between the Phillies' offer and Braunecker's proposal, decided to split the difference. The deal was on again, and Amaro called Proefrock around 11 p.m. ET on Dec. 13 to tell them they had a deal.
Lee signed a five-year, $120 million contract with a sixth-year option that increased the value of the deal to $135 million.
The Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games in 2011. Statistically, Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt helped the Phillies put together one of the best seasons by any rotation in baseball history. They fell short of their World Series championship goals, but for several months the Phillies were not only the best game in Philadelphia, they were the best game in baseball.
Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and listen to his podcast.