Welcome to a very special Christmas edition of Ruben Tuesdays: A weekly look back at the greatest moves made by the Phillies’ former general manager Ruben Amaro. This time, I’ll talk about the time when Amaro made the Christmas dreams of Phillies fans come true.
Phillies fans loved Cliff Lee. The team first acquired him in a July 2009 trade, and he went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA down the stretch as the Phillies clinched a third straight National League East title. In the postseason, he raised his game further. In five starts, he was 4-0 and allowed a total of seven earned runs.
One of the lasting (positive) memories of the 2009 World Series was Lee nonchalantly catching an infield popup.
The following offseason, the Phillies were rumored to be pursuing a trade for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, and Phillies fans had images of a super rotation in their head. Sure enough, the Phillies traded for Halladay...only to trade Lee to the Seattle Mariners in a separate deal. While the fans were happy about getting Halladay, many people never forgave Amaro for getting rid of Lee. (As the comments on this post will inevitably reflect.)
During the 2010 season, they helped compensate for the absence of Lee by trading for Astros ace Roy Oswalt. Come the following offseason, despite the presence of three aces already in the rotation, many Phillies fans still hoped that the team would bring back Lee in free agency.
Amaro didn’t seem inclined to indulge those hopes. The Rangers (who had traded for Lee during the 2010 season) and the Yankees were considered the favorites to sign him. There were rumors of a “mystery team” pursuing his services, but the Phillies weren’t often mentioned when discussing potential destinations.
On December 14th, the Phillies shocked the baseball world and gave their fans a very merry Cliffmas. They had signed Lee to a five year/$120 million deal. Even better, it was later reported that Lee had spurned a better offer from the Yankees because he preferred playing in Philadelphia.
With four aces heading the rotation, the 2011 season saw the most successful regular season in franchise history. Every night, the team would send another star pitcher to the mound, and a victory would inevitably follow. They ended up winning 102 games and captured the National League East by 13 games.
Unfortunately, Lee was unable to duplicate his postseason success of 2009. The Phillies staked him to a four-run lead in the second game of the NLDS, but thanks to some bad luck on several batted balls, Lee couldn’t hold the lead.
Despite the rest of the team falling apart around him, Lee continued to pitch well for the Phillies over the next two years. The post-2011 Phillies had many problems, but thanks to Lee (and Cole Hamels), the top of the rotation was not one of them.
The good times ended in 2014 when Lee suffered an elbow injury that caused him to miss over half the season. He attempted to return in 2015, but a recurrence of the injury during Spring Training ended all hopes of a comeback.
The Lee era may have ended in a whimper, but there if there were any fans unhappy when they signed him, it was a very quiet minority. The Phillies don’t often pursue the biggest names in free agency. So to see them not only spend big money to bring back a beloved former Phillie, but to outduel the Yankees to do so, it felt like a Christmas miracle.