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Lee gives Phillies a potentially historic rotation

Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels — and Cliff Lee. Yes, Cliff Lee.

The Philadelphia Phillies have assembled quite an impressive starting rotation that could eventually go down as one of the best in baseball history. The stunning addition of Lee gives the Phillies four aces in an era when most teams would be happy to have just one.

Lee spurned more lucrative offers from the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers to return to Philadelphia. The free-agent pitcher passed up an extra $30 million from the Yankees and reached a preliminary agreement on a $120 million, five-year contract with the Phillies.

The agreement, which includes a buyout of a 2016 option, was announced Wednesday.

"My family enjoyed it here," Lee told WCAU-TV. "There's a lot of pros and not many cons, when you start weighing things out."

The lefty's decision to join the Phillies makes them the envy of the majors. No other team boasts four starters with similar pedigrees. Halladay was the NL Cy Young Award winner this year and won the AL honor in 2003 with Toronto. Lee won the award in the AL in 2008. Oswalt has two 20-win seasons and a NLCS MVP award. Hamels was World Series MVP in '08.

Lee said speculation about the team having the best pitching staff ever was premature.

"You've got to go out there and do it first, so time will tell on that," he told WCAU.

The city, as a result of the news, was abuzz all day with baseball. Even in frigid temperatures — with the Flyers and Eagles at the top of their games, no less — all the talk was about Lee and the Phillies getting back to the World Series. In fact, as the Flyers prepared to meet the Pittsburgh Penguins across the street in a battle for first place in the NHL's Atlantic Division, there were more television trucks in front of Citizens Bank Park, than there were at the Wells Fargo Center.

The fever is understandable, of course. After all, this fearsome foursome has three Cy Young awards, 13 All-Star game appearances, two NLCS MVP awards, one World Series MVP award one perfect game and one postseason no-hitter on its remarkable resume.

The World Series-champion San Francisco Giants have an outstanding rotation. But even two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner don't compare just yet.

Lee joined the Phillies in July 2009 in a trade with Cleveland. He had a sensational postseason, going 4-0 and earning two wins in the World Series. But the Yankees beat the Phillies in six games.

Lee never wanted to leave Philadelphia, and was upset when he was dealt to Seattle last December on the same day Halladay was acquired from Toronto. The Phillies tried trading for Lee in July, but ended up with Oswalt instead.

Now they've got them all.

"It was somewhat surprising, but all along we had thought that if a third team would jump in late, it might be the Phillies," Rangers managing partner Chuck Greenberg said, adding that Lee "expressed his affection for his time pitching with the Phillies" during their first meeting.

The Rangers have to fill a big void after losing Lee, who pitched them to their first World Series. And, the Yankees must look elsewhere for a top-of-the-line starter.

"We have a lot of respect for Cliff, Kristen and the way they went about the decision," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said Tuesday. "They had three good offers, from three competitive clubs. And they went to a place that they were comfortable, in the National League, and (to be a ) part of potentially a historic-type rotation."

The Yankees aren't used to losing out on big-name free agents. They've thrown big bucks at plenty of stars — CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, among others — over the years and put them in the blue pinstripes.

But Lee chose to play in a city that he and his family enjoyed being in, and to be around teammates he bonded with in a short period. Those factors outweighed the money.

"I don't believe there's any environment he's afraid to pitch in. I don't think New York was something he didn't want to go to," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "These are attractive places to play. Cliff made a decision I'm sure wasn't easy. I'm happy to at least be in the process."

The addition of Lee instantly made the Phillies favorites to win the World Series in 2011. The oddsmakers at Bodog.com moved Philadelphia from 6:1 to 7:2 favorites. But the Phillies have to be careful. Teams with the best starting staffs don't often win the World Series.

Only two clubs have ever had four 20-game winners in a season. The Baltimore Orioles had Dave McNally (21), Mike Cuellar (20), Pat Dobson (20) and Jim Palmer (20) in 1971. But they lost to Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games in the World Series.

The Chicago White Sox had Red Faber (23), Lefty Williams (22), Eddie Cicotte (21) and Dickey Kerr (21) in 1920. They finished second to Cleveland in the American League.

For more than a decade, the Atlanta Braves ruled the NL East with dominant pitching. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are likely headed to the Hall of Fame. The Braves had various fourth starters along the way. Steve Avery, Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood were the most notable. In 1998, the Braves became just the ninth team and first since 1930 to have five 15-game winners, according to STATS LLC. Glavine (20), Maddux (18), Smoltz (17), Millwood (17) and Neagle (16) combined for 88 of Atlanta's 106 wins. But the Braves lost to San Diego in the NLCS.

Despite all their pitching and winning an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, the Braves only won one World Series in that span.

With Lee, the Phillies are looking for more than that. Yes, they are the clear-cut favorite to win their fifth straight NL East title and reach the World Series for the third time in four years. But winning the championship is all that counts.