Derrek Lee’s past, present, and future

The Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan caught up with Derrek Lee to gather the Cubs first baseman’s thoughts on his expiring contract and impending free agency. From his article:

[T]here will be no negotiations this spring and probably not any during the season. Unlike last time, there’s no guarantee Lee will be back.

“I’d like to (retire as a Cub), but if it doesn’t happen, I understand that also,” Lee said. “It’s really not a big issue.”

It isn’t now, but it may be in September.

It’s hard to predict how much Lee would command on the open market, though his $13 million salary is undervalued for someone who hit .306 with 35 home runs and 111 RBIs last season.

But Lee admits he’s “old” in baseball terms. He turns 35 in September, and the core of this Cubs team isn’t getting any younger.

Sullivan also notes that Lee’s situation is at least superficially comparable to the still-unemployed Jermaine Dye. And while there are similarities—age, city, and peak shiny numbers come to mind—I think Lee figures to be in a very different spot come next winter. His career is a remarkable one, and it’s odd that a player with a combination of postseason success and individual achievement gets such little notoriety.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Lee ever really burst onto the scene. After just 64 relatively eventless plate appearances with the Padres, the Marlins acquired him prior to 1998 as part of their first post-World Series fire sale. Lee hardly got off to an illustrious start, scuffling along at .233/.318/.414 in 1998. He came to the plate only 218 times in a lost 1999 season, logging more than four strikeouts for each walk.

In 2000, however, he began to translate his immense physical abilities into serious production. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that good things happen when a player chops his K/BB in half while developing prodigious power, which is exactly what Lee did. His .281/.368/.507 line would be excellent for just about any sort of player, and is especially impressive for a 24-year old. For the sake of comparison, Adrian Gonzalez threw out a .300/.362/.500 season at the same age. And while Gonzalez’s numbers are understated due to Petco Park, it should be noted that Lee’s home park—Pro Player Stadium—wasn’t exactly a launching pad.

Lee followed up that impressive 2000 with an acceptable .282/.346/.474 effort in 2001—hardly ideal, but, if that’s the nadir of your developing first baseman’s ascent, you take it. And the nadir it was. Lee took another leap forward with excellent 2002 and 2003 seasons, both of which were good for OPS+ figures of 131. While a young player peaking at 26 and 27 isn’t unique, Lee’s adventures on the basepaths make his story unusual.

After attempting just eight steals through his age-25 season, Lee swiped 40 bases in 2002 and 2003. His success rates weren’t what we’d call “good”—he was caught 17 times to those 40 successes. I’m not here to tell you that the newfound aggressiveness was a boon to his game, just that there aren’t a great many .500-slugging first basemen who decide to add steals to their repertoire at age 26. Looking back at that 2003 Marlins club, though, it’s clear that attempting steals was a team-wide effort, damn the consequences. Five members of that squad took off at least 16 times, and the team combined for 150 steals at the cost of 74 failed attempts.

After winning the World Series as a Marlin in 2003 (despite the team’s misguided chicanery between the bases), Lee’s career was again redirected by a Florida fire sale. Once the cheap prospect and now the expensive veteran, Lee was shipped to the Chicago Cubs for Hee-Seop Choi—who would, despite general disappointment, finish his Florida career a perfect 1-for-1 on the basepaths.

Lee’s Chicago career, being both more recent and more visible, is a little better known. Lee followed up a modest 2004 with a monster 2005, posting a .335/.418/.662 line as a 29-year-old. He also managed to swipe 15 bases in 18 attempts that year, though Albert Pujols might have stolen the MVP award. Lee’s OPS was a touch higher, countered by Pujols’ slight WAR advantage. In any case, Lee’s stellar season was every bit as good as Pujols’, an accomplishment he will surely look back on with pride in the decades to come.

Chicago rewarded Lee’s breakthrough with the five-year, $65 million pact that nds with the upcoming season. Other than a lost-to-injury 2006, Lee’s contract has been much less disastrous than most similar deals. Over the first four years, Lee’s provided $57 million of performance (per Fangraphs) compared to $52 million of compensation. Considering that ratio includes the doomed 2006 season (for which the Cubs probably received an insurance payment), his contract looks pretty good in retrospect entering its final year.

Ordinarily, a 35-year old first baseman with middling defensive value wouldn’t fare well in today’s free agency. However, Lee put up a fantastic 2009 season, posting his highest WAR (5.3) since the halcyon days of 2005 (7.5). While he’s eschewed the attempted steals, his thieving ways of the past hinted at athleticism that has allowed him to age nicely. His UZR figures were better in 2008 and 2009 than any other seasons in the statistic’s records, which go back through 2002. And, by the way, he can still hit: .306/.393/.579 is wonderful at any position and at any age.

CHONE has Lee slipping a little in 2010, to a .285/.365/.467 line. Bill James‘ projections are a little kinder, penciling him in for .291/.378/.516. There aren’t any perfect comparisons for Lee from this winter’s free agent class of first basemen; none of them were nearly as good in 2009, and the only one even approaching his offensive worth, Russell Branyan, has neither Lee’s glove nor his fame. While the latter shouldn’t matter much, it still carries weight. Still, to even compare Branyan to Lee discredits Lee. He’s a better player than any first baseman who hit the market this winter.

Branching out to other positions, Jason Bay is comparable performance-wise, but the ages are too dissimilar. The opposite is true for Miguel Tejada. Adrian Beltre isn’t nearly good enough with the stick to be a useful comparison, despite the excellent glove. The opposite is true for Vladimir Guerrero, even if he can recover offensively. The best comparable, in terms of WAR and age, might be Mike Cameron, worth 8.4 wins over his age-35 and -36 seasons. At 32 and 33, Lee produced a combined 8.5 WAR.

This comparison doesn’t hold up well. Cameron’s much older to begin with, and he depends on young player skills much more than Lee. Cameron’s two-year, $15.5 million deal with the Red Sox seems like the absolute floor for Lee’s next deal, even if his performance dips considerably.

So what is a 35-year old first baseman worth? Lee has a considerable advantage in that, barring injury or rapid decline, he can still play the field, unlike his contemporaries who require at least part-time availability of the DH slot. Of course, Lee will be worth what the market is willing to pay, and the market should be strong. The Dodgers will have a decision to make about James Loney after 2010, if not during the season. The Phillies may decide to jettison Ryan Howard, and Lee would be a fine replacement. A similar dynamic is in place in Milwaukee concerning Prince Fielder. And the Cubs don’t exactly have a first baseman ready to take the reins.

Ultimately, whether it’s Chicago or elsewhere, I think Lee will maximize his haul by staying in the National League. In recent years, he’s been more than adequate defensively, and there’s little to suggest he needs to give up the glove any time soon. A long contract is probably out of the question, though, especially in the NL. A three-year deal would take Lee through his age-37 season, and that length seems appropriate. As for dollars, I see no reason for Lee to settle for less than $10 million annually. He probably doesn’t have the resume or clout to seek a Chipper Jones-like $13 million per year, but it’s not out of the question given a wonderful 2010. More likely, however, Lee winds up with something like three years, $33-36 million.

Projecting what Lee will get next winter is at least a bit of a fool’s errand. But it’s clear, from my perspective, that he’s not doomed to Dye’s fate. I can’t imagine he’ll suffer as much, for that matter, as Johnny Damon. Not only is Lee not represented by Scott Boras, he possesses real defensive value, and his offensive production is not so tainted by his home field. Lee has one of the more interesting career paths of his generation, and I don’t think he’s close to done yet. And, while such things aren’t determinative, he seems to have the right mindset:

Am I worried about it? No. My only concern is winning baseball games. Contracts, they’ll take care of themselves. My numbers are going to dictate what kind of contract I get next year. So I figure if I just worry about playing baseball and helping my team win, all that other stuff takes care of itself.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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  1. D Leaberry said...

    With the economy stagnant and likely to be for many years, look for more one and two year deals.  Lee will be fortunate to get a three year deal at his age.

  2. Robert Haymond said...

    Mentioning Johnny Damon in this article brought up a question:  Why did he have such a hard time coming up with a suitable contract?  Reminds me of how Bobby Abreu was treated by the Yankees only to star last year.  I never liked Damon, mind you, but not due to his ballplaying ability.  He was such a fashion in Boston and then agreed to cutting his hair in order to satisfy Geoorge Steinbrenner in New York.  Anyway, why did he have so few takers this year?  Was it his agent’s fault?

  3. Joe R said...

    Lee is a king of why WAR is kind of weird. lists him at 28.6 for his career. Fangraphs has him at 31.5 since 2002.

    Both agree that he’s a better defender now than earlier, which does show signs of a graceful age. And of the 607 players w/ 6,000+ PA, he’s a very respectable 160th in wRC w/ a 130, very similar to Eddie Murray (obviously w/ nowhere near the career length, though).

    Good player.

  4. bookbook said...

    The economy’s recovery may be nascent or stillborn. However, the stock market has largely recovered, growing 60% since it’s nadir.

    The owners, as a group, have quite a bit of money to play with, and baseball remains hugely profitable. If they want to win, they will spend again.

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