With the acquisition of Derrek Lee, the Orioles have completed their infield overhaul. Lee, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds will join longtime Oriole Brian Roberts in 2011, giving the infield a completely new look (thank goodness). Lee is certainly nearing the end of his career (he'll be 35 years old this season) and is coming off a disappointing year, but it is the hope of the Orioles that he'll provide an offensive boost that's been missing at first base since the days of Rafael Palmeiro (the first time).
Lee was drafted out of high school in the first round of the 1993 amateur draft (13th overall) by the San Diego Padres, but only played twenty-two games for them before being traded to the Florida Marlins in a package that sent Kevin Brown to San Diego in winter 1997. He spent the next six season with the Marlins, where he hit .264/.353/.469 with 129 HR and 159 2B in 844 games.
You may remember talk of Lee being traded to the Orioles in 2003. Reports at the time were that Lee came to Camden Yards to negotiate an extension, but ultimately decided Baltimore wasn't the place for him. As such, the Marlins ended up trading Lee to the Chicago Cubs for Hee-Seop Choi. Lee went on to sign an extension with the Cubs and have the best period of his career. In 815 games from 2004-2009, Lee hit .304/.384/.539 with 163 HR and 218 2B. The Orioles, having lost out on Lee, went on to employ Rafael Palmeiro (again), Chris Gomez, Jeff Conine, Kevin Millar, Aubrey Huff, and Ty Wigginton over the same time period.
2010 was the last year on Lee's contract with the Cubs, but he wasn't able to make the most of his walk year. After suffering a broken thumb in April, he hit just .251/.335/.416 in 109 games before being traded to the Atlanta Braves (I say "just" but I would have welcomed that line from the Orioles' first basemen, who hit a collective .236/.296/.384 on the season). Lee went on to play quite well for the Braves to end the year, although it was only thirty-nine games. He hit the market as an aging player coming off of a substandard year, which is how he ended up signing a one year deal with Baltimore.
In an effort to get to know Lee a little better, I solicited help from Al Yellon, the managing editor at SBN's Cubs blog, Bleed Cubbie Blue. Click through the jump to read Al's thoughts on Derrek Lee.
Derrek Lee was one of the most popular and productive Cubs for just short of seven seasons. You'll still see people wearing his "LEE 25" jerseys next year, I'm sure -- in fact, there was a joke that the Cubs were going to sign Cliff Lee and issue him #25 just to make sure they could sell all the leftover replica jerseys (never mind that getting Cliff Lee would have been, well, good).
Aw, we're not the only ones who made Cliff Lee jokes! I'll miss those.
Lee was acquired in a salary-dump deal just after he helped the Marlins beat the Cubs in the 2003 NLCS. After a good 2004, he had a MVP-type season in 2005, leading the NL in hits, BA, doubles, SLG, OPS and total bases. Because the Cubs didn't have much else that year, he also set an NL record for fewest RBI (107) for anyone who had 45 or more HR in a season.
After that, the Cubs signed him to a five-year, $65 million deal. It was in the first month of 2006 that Rafael Furcal banged into him trying to beat out a bunt in LA and broke D-Lee's wrist. He missed most of the rest of the season and the Cubs tanked.
That was the beginning of a couple of injury-filled years for D-Lee. His wrist wasn't really 100% until 2009, and he suffered various neck and back problems, nothing serious, but all of which added up to missing a few games here and there. His 2007 and 2008 production, while good, wasn't up to the 2005 level.
In 2009 he got off to a slow start but had a great second half and posted numbers not too far off his 2005 season.
Al calls these years "injury-filled," but don't panic too much. Lee did play only fifty games in 2006 after breaking his wrist, but in 2007, 2008, and 2009 played 150, 155, and 141 games respectively. In 2007 he had two stretches where he missed five consecutive games, but other than that played pretty much full time. He never missed more than one game in a row in 2008, although in 2009 he had several stretches of multiple games missed (two games twice, three games twice, five games once).
Lee suffered a thumb injury on Opening Day, and like many Cub veterans, was allowed to try to play through it instead of going on the DL and getting it fixed. What resulted was a mediocre first half and then, with the Cubs tanking, Jim Hendry wanted to deal him to the Angels.
He exercised his 10-and-5 rights and refused to go. A month later, right after he had a two-homer game in St. Louis, the Braves asked if he'd waive those rights and he agreed to go. It was both a salary dump and acknowledging that D-Lee's time in Chicago was done, as he was not going to be re-signed for 2011 and beyond. When he returned to Wrigley -- two days later -- he was greeted with a warm ovation, because throughout his tenure in Chicago he was viewed as a quiet leader. Rarely saying much in public, he led by example.
Lee's thumb injury is often cited as a possible source for his down season in 2010, and in fact he had surgery to repair a torn ligament in November after the Braves were eliminated from the playoffs. Hopefully he'll be fully recovered and ready to hit a bunch of home runs at Camden Yards this year.
In 2006, beyond his injuries, his daughter was diagnosed with a rare eye disease, which led him to shut down his season in September and go home. Later he founded Project 3000, a foundation to help raise money for this disease -- and even after it was learned that his daughter had been misdiagnosed, he continued his work to raise money for this foundation (the "3000" refers to the number of Americans who have this disease). I attended a fundraiser in Arizona for this foundation in 2008 where D-Lee was in attendance; Bleed Cubbie Blue raised $1400 for the foundation. I found him charming and pleasant and just a real nice, down-to-earth guy. (Somewhere in his closet, I hope he still has the Bleed Cubbie Blue t-shirt I gave him.)
If Lee has a Bleed Cubbie Blue shirt, surely we have to get him a Camden Chat shirt as well. I think he'd like, "Camden Chat: Where Everyone is Rick Dempsey's Nephew." I don't think he'd appreciate, "It's always next year here."
His defense is first-rate; you will be happy that your other infielders will be saved many errors by his height (6-5) and ability to reach for high throws, and his scoops out of the dirt.
When he gets in a groove he can carry a team, but you will be frustrated by his tendency to hit into double plays when he's cold (thus the nickname "DP-Lee -- he tied a Cubs team record with 27 in 2008). He strikes out fairly often, but less than some other similar sluggers (about 100 a year; he'll draw 70-75 walks to make up for it).
Great, more double plays. Twenty-seven double plays is a lot. Since the year 2000, only one Oriole has hit into more. Care to take a guess who? You're right, it was Miguel Tejada (twenty-eight in 2006)! Lee also hit into twenty-three double plays last season, but otherwise has stuck to the 11-15 range.
Can he make a comeback? If healthy...maybe. He's 35 and clearly entering the final stages of his career. I suppose he may have one last salvo in him and could put up a .290/.370/.500 season, which would be a little over his career averages. Or he could turn into Jermaine Dye.
That doesn't seem like a nice thing to say about Jermaine Dye. I'll chalk it up to cross-town rivalry, and cross my fingers that Derrek Lee bounces back in a big way in 2011.
UPDATE from Andrew_G: I just got off the phone from Derrek Lee's introductory press conference, which was pretty standard fare. He had many nice things to say about the Orioles and Buck Showalter and that he's eager to play in the American League for the first time and prove that he isn't washed up at age 35. I'm a total sucker for those kinds of quotes about surprising the league and such, and I'm sure you'll be able to find them all over the blogO'sphere shortly.
Some things from the press conference that I did find particularly interesting:
Asked if he had spoken to Buck Showalter about where he was going to hit in the lineup, and whether he had a preference, Lee was pretty dismissive. He had talked in vague terms with Buck (something in the middle), but "I don't really care" was the summation of his thoughts on the matter.
While he had a ton of great things to say about Buck, he said clearly "No, [Buck] didn't call and lobby me [to come play for the Orioles]".
On the thumb injury (which was probably the main topic of conversation): He tore his UCL in his right thumb diving for a ball on Opening Day, had surgery on the 5th of November (remember, remember), and has been out of his cast for two weeks now. He hasn't been cleared to swing a bat yet, but he said he's taken a couple of hacks anyway and that it feels pretty good. He expects to be 100% for Spring Training.
You get the feeling that he would probably be saying that even if his thumb were literally detached from his hand. Asked if he put at least some of the blame for his poor 2010 on the injury, he was again pretty dismissive. "I've had injuries before and played well, and I've been healthy before and played poorly".