When the Orioles finalized the signing of Derrek Lee back in January, it was supposed to represent the final piece of the infield puzzle falling into place as a reliable veteran looking for a bounce-back year would slide into a position that was a total black hole for the team in the 2010 season, both offensively and defensively. Half of that scenario has come true enough, as anyone can watch the games and see why Lee lives up to the "Silky D" nickname that we have bestowed on him here on Camden Chat.
As for offensively, well... let's take a look at some of the post-signing comments that appeared from the usual suspects:
Roch Kubatko pointed out Lee's career interleague numbers: In 170 career games, Lee has batted .311 (191-for-615) with 27 homers and a .503 slugging percentage.
The O's Insider blog touted Lee's consistency: Lee has hit at least 20 home runs in nine of his last 11 seasons and played in at least 140 games in 10 of those 11 seasons.
In the official story on MLB.com, Brittany Ghiroli reminded us of past glory - 312 career home runs, including 35 in 2009, and the hopes of a bounce-back from 2010 with the torn ligament in his thumb that sapped his power and led to only 19 home runs.
Half of the season's games are played and Lee is batting .240/.302/.352. He has just six home runs. If the hope was that he would bounce back from a year where he batted .260/.347/.428 and that those numbers would represent the floor, then what we are looking at is pretty much the worst-case scenario.
Lest anyone think I am just trying to call out the mainstream Orioles outlets for trying to sell us on what's turned out to be a bad signing, let's take a look at the Camden Chat community projections for Lee: .281/.364/.472 with 24 home runs. My prediction was .280/.365/.475 with 25 home runs. I was definitely drinking the Orange Kool-Aid, and probably so were you. It's okay, because rooting for the Orioles induces a shared insanity.
With half of the season's games played, it's time for the O's to make some tough decisions about Lee's continued role on the team. To be sure, one problem is Lee batting 5th continually. However, with performance clauses that Lee is on pace to earn, moving Lee down in the lineup (if Buck Showalter will even do it regularly - which until yesterday he'd shown no signs of doing) is no longer sufficient.
Lee is on a contract that will pay him $7.25 million in base salary for the 2011 season. Whether or not this number represents a sunk cost the Orioles should just give up on is no longer relevant. The reason for that is the structure of Lee's contract, with numerous plate appearance-based performance clauses. Specifically:
* Lee earns $250,000 each for every 25 PA increment from 400 all the way up to 600
* The two exceptions to the above are 400 and 500 PAs, which are each worth $500,000 to Lee
Lee had 275 plate appearances through 81 games. At that rate, he'll be on a pace to have 550 PAs by the end of the season. That would earn him an extra $2.25 million ($1 million for 400 and 500 PA; $1.25 million for 425, 450, 475, 525, 550) to make his total 2011 salary $9.5 million.
A sidebar here: these performance clauses are the most generous PA-based incentives on any contract offered to a player currently on an MLB roster. I know this because I looked at Cot's Contracts for every team. I can't speak to retired players, whose contracts aren't listed. Here's a sampling of some other recent PA incentives offered to players.
* Bobby Abreu was on a bounce-back contract with the Angels in 2009 and was offered a base salary of $5 million, with performance bonuses of $250,000 each for 500, 550, 600 and 650 PAs. Abreu had 667 PAs for an extra $1 million.
* Miguel Tejada's bounce-back contract with the O's last year had a $6M base salary with $100,000 coming for getting 630 PAs. Tejada had 681 PAs to earn the $100k bonus.
* Ivan Rodriguez signed a one-year deal in Houston in 2009. The deal had a base salary of $1.5M and he was due to receive $200,000 each for 350, 375, 400, 425, and 450 PAs. Pudge had 448 PAs for an additional $800,000.
Reports over the offseason indicated Lee was looking to a west coast team, and may have even turned down an offer in the neighborhood of $8M with the Padres to play with the O's. There is a good chance the chance of earning these incentives provided a big lure for Lee to sign here instead. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as this is one way that the O's can get creative in signing players who can hopefully help the team.
However, with those incentives set to be reached, the time is now for the Orioles to ask themselves some tough questions. Is Derrek Lee going to rebound any further? Lee had a .654 OPS at the conclusion of interleague play. He entered the second wave of interleague with a .597 OPS. Does this represent Lee getting healthy and finding his stroke again, or is it simply a slowed-down veteran player feasting on familiar and inferior NL pitching?
Will Lee have any value whatsoever at the trade deadline? Among major league first basemen, Lee's batting average is the third-worst, and his OBP and slugging percentage are both second-worst entering July 4's games.
To me, there is no reason to believe that Lee's numbers are going to get any better than they are now. I don't think it is a coincidence that he has heated up against the National League, and we're now going to head into the tough summer months where we'll be playing all AL games, and specifically AL East games. I can't fathom why Lee would have any value to anyone at the trade deadline, even if the Orioles were offering to pay to offset the salary and on-pace incentives.
Lee will be hard-pressed to live up to the $7.25 million contract, let alone one with a total value of $9.5 million, so why continue giving him those chances? If Lee's veteran presence is really worth that much to the clubhouse, then he should be relegated to the bench for 8th-9th inning defensive help and maybe the occasional start or PH. Call up Brandon Snyder - he can take Nolan Reimold's roster spot since Nolan's just riding the pine anyway - and tell Snyder that he's the man for the rest of the year, then let him play and see what he does.
More radically, the Orioles could just cut their ties with Lee and designate him for assignment. Nothing personal against Lee, who does genuinely seem like a fine man who is doing everything he can. The game of baseball is plainly still in his heart and his mind, but I don't think it's in his body any more. He can still go into retirement with his head high for a great career and nobody should hold against him his trying to stretch it out for one more year.
As to why the O's should act now, the reason for that is the grievance. Every year, it seems like there's a team or two who tries to get out of a bonus or a vesting option by benching a player in order to not pay him. This raises a stink, and fairly so. If a player is supposedly underperforming, then why was he playing the whole year in order to get close to the incentive? Lee has 275 PAs now and he'll only be getting closer with every game to reaching those incentives and probably getting in range for a grievance if the O's were to suddenly bench him or release him around or after the trade deadline.
Depending on which metric you use, Lee's either the worst or the second-worst O's starter at the plate. (The other choice is Robert Andino, who is making the major league minimum.) He leads the team in GIDPs with 12. He is a serious drag on the lineup no matter where he bats, but even moreso considering he is batting 5th every game - the same deference to veterans that has gotten us Vlad as the cleanup hitter all season. That's another story entirely.
$2.25 million is real money, and in particular it's real money that the Orioles could use to sign draft picks, especially 6th-round choice Nick Delmonico.
The time to make the decision on Derrek Lee is now. I don't think anything will happen other than the status quo. I can dream, though, and so can you. If we couldn't, then we wouldn't still be Orioles fans.