But just as "mystery team" was starting to look more like a concept than a competitor in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, the mystery was solved and the Phillies emerged from the shadows to land the offseason's biggest prize.
When the news broke at the midnight hour on the East Coast that Lee had agreed to a contract with the Phillies for five years and about $120 million -- some two years and almost $30 million less than his highest offer -- there was still little clarity on many unanswered questions.
Why did Lee choose to return to Philadelphia, where he pitched the team into the 2009 World Series only for the ungrateful franchise to trade him that offseason? How did the Rangers and Yankees lose such a prized free agent when they offered significantly more money? Given the stellar rotation the Phillies already had, was signing Lee to such a lucrative contract really in the club's best interests? Had they planned this all offseason or did it only fall into their laps late in the Hot Stove? Could it lead to teams using this example to pressure other elite players to take less money in the future? How will the union react to this possibly precedent-setting deal?
Many of those answers will remain vague at least until the daylight hours, but for now at least three things became crystal clear:
• The Phillies will have baseball's best starting pitching.
• The Yankees, spurned again this offseason, could be in some trouble.
• And the notion of baseball-player-as-mercenary has taken a hit, as a man who could have made history with the second-largest contract ever given to a pitcher instead rejected that offer to play where he felt most comfortable. It's a move surely to be wildly popular not just among Philadelphia fans but also throughout baseball -- except, of course, in Texas and New York, who are now scrambling for backup plans.
Lee now joins reigning NL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay as well as Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to form a formidable first four spots of the rotation, an accomplished group whose only post-strike era comparison for talent could be the 1997 Braves with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle. The Phillies, already favorites in the NL East, now enjoy a prohibitive advantage on paper over the Braves and everyone else in the division even without power-hitting outfielder Jayson Werth, who joined the Nationals. That's what a full year of those four starters can do for a club.
While the Rangers and Yankees both seemed willing to commit more years and more money to Lee -- reportedly the Rangers offered what could have been seven years and $161 million if the final-year option vested and the Yankees offered seven years and almost $150 million -- a difference-making pitcher whose last two teams reached the World Series with him as their ace, only one of those clubs has a suitable backup option.
Texas has the young players and the environment to trade for Royals ace Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young winner himself who will require a hefty package of prospects for Kansas City to trade him and a low-pressure atmosphere for him to accept that trade.
The Yankees, meanwhile, had pinned their entire offseason on Lee and the assumption that their dollars could lure him to the Bronx. Not since Greg Maddux in 1993 has a highly sought free agent turned them down for a team the player thought was a better fit. In the second half of last season and in the playoffs, New York's biggest need was clearly the lack of another reliable starter, and Lee not only fit that bill but also was a Yankee-killer, so signing him meant not having to face him either.
Most presume Greinke, who has suffered from social anxiety problems in the past, isn't likely to agree to be traded to New York, so there wouldn't seem to be another ace-caliber pitcher available. The Yankees' other backup plan was to sign Carl Crawford and trade one of their current outfielders for a starter, but Crawford went to archrival Boston instead.
Now the Yankees need starting pitching depth and may have a tougher time coaxing veteran Andy Pettitte back for another season when Lee's not around to bolster their World Series credentials. Unless Pettitte returns out of loyalty to Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and the franchise at large, general manager Brian Cashman may need to find two new starters as the offseason starts to get pretty late.
In his professional career, which began when the Montreal Expos drafted him in 2000, Lee has been a part of five organizations, traded four times and pitched for as many teams in the last two years. He had become a hired gun who might as well have carried a sign that read "Have Arm, Will Travel." But though he was an effective traveler who excelled at every stop -- he went 48-25 with a 2.98 ERA and a Cy Young Award in the last three years -- it doesn't mean he was a willing one.
Lee had undoubtedly deserved this opportunity to be a free agent, both in the literal sense that he had completed enough service time by the rules of the collective bargaining agreement and in the figurative sense that his performance had warranted a seniority of sorts, that he should be able to choose his next baseball home.
In fact, when asked about his future destination shortly after the Rangers lost this year's World Series, Lee said, "Free agency's an earned right, and I have to take advantage of that."
Everyone's interpretation of those words was that Lee was ready to take advantage of the lavish proposals that would soon be sent his way, extracting every dollar he could from the highest bidder. He wasn't moving his family out of their home in Arkansas, so it became easy to deduce that he'd make as much money as he could wherever he could and import it back.
But doing so, as it turned out, sold his decision-making short as, six weeks later, Lee sold himself short, by accepting the smaller offer.
There is no mistaking that Lee's decision will resonate with fans for years to come. He rejected almost of $30 million in order to feel comfortable about where he worked and choose a team where he knows he can compete for the World Series title he's been so close to but not yet won.
Fans clamor all the time for players not to be overcome with greed. Lee, of course, won't be begging any time soon, as the reported deal with the Phillies is for a higher per annum wage than either of his other offers, but the fewer guaranteed years and smaller overall value is no small matter. The sum he left on the proverbial table is many multiples of the lifetime earnings of most fans.
And so while Phillies fans will shower Lee with the devotion granted a conquering hero, they won't be the only ones cheering. Fans everywhere but Texas and New York will applaud him too.