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Carlos Lee to First?

This piece by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe mostly focuses on the postseason chances of Roy Oswalt‘s Philadelphia Phillies, but buried in there is also a nugget about Oswalt’s former team, the Houston Astros. Cafardo reports that in an attempt to increase Carlos Lee‘s trade value, the team will move the struggling outfielder to first base to start the 2011 season.

Lee has had a terrible year by anybody’s standards, let alone his own. After ten straight seasons of above average offensive performance and a total of 149 runs above average in that timeframe, Lee has collapsed in 2010. His slash line has dropped to .246/.289/.415 this season. Much of that is part of a BABIP collapse to .238, but his power numbers have continued to decline after his ISO dropped below .200 for the first time since 2001. Overall, Lee has a .306 wOBA and a 91 wRC+ – numbers that aren’t terrible overall, but a player needs to provide some defensive value to back up those kind of hitting numbers.

If it weren’t for defensive issues, a move to first base wouldn’t even be in the discussion. However, Lee is utterly Dunnian (or maybe Hawpesque?) when it comes to the outfield. He was serviceable earlier in his career, but his age has caught up to him, and an utter lack of quickness or speed makes Lee a liability in left field. DRS and UZR both have Lee between -15 and -17 runs this season in left field, and Tom Tango’s Fans Scouting Report ranks Lee as one of the bottom 10 left fielders in the majors. That kind of performance puts Lee’s defensive contributions below the value of a designated hitter.

In that sense, a move to first probably makes sense – not only is first base the easiest position, but it also sees the fewest chances of any position as well. Due to this lack of chances, it’s hard to imagine Lee as much worse than -10 – although it’s certainly possible – which is the level that would be equal to -15 in LF. If he can play at even a -5 level, that would make him about half a win better, and if Lee is an average first baseman, then his defensive value is probably increased by about one full win.

Of course, that won’t matter if his hitting doesn’t rebound – nobody’s going to give up prospects or take on salary to add a first baseman with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. There is a chance that he could improve, though. Lee’s contact skills are excellent, as he has only struck out 109 times in nearly 1300 plate appearances over the last two seasons. The problem is being able to produce with that contact, something that’s nearly impossible with a .238 BABIP, and the decline in power production hasn’t helped either.

As a plodding 34 year old with a drastically falling line drive rate, it’s not surprising that Lee’s BABIP has plummeted, and given that profile, there’s no guarantee that it rebounds. Even if it does, it probably won’t get above .300 – the last time Lee posted a .300+ BABIP was 2004. However, CHONE’s projection of .282/.328/.478 would at least make him an above average hitter. With a conservative estimate of -3 runs at first base, that would make Lee a 1.0 WAR player.

That looks like it would certainly increase Lee’s value, although not enough to get anything of value in return, particularly if the Lance Berkman trade or the Roy Oswalt trade are indicators at all. However, this analysis so far has overlooked the presence of Brett Wallace at first base. Wallace has looked awful in the majors to date, but he is rated highly by some talent evaluators. Starting Lee at first base would mean that Wallace is either relegated to AAA or the bench. The latter could be a disastrous decision for Wallace’s development. The former would mean a third tour through AAA, a league in which he has already posted .800+ OPSs twice. Perhaps Wallace, who turned 24 last month, could learn more with another stint in the minors, but it’s also possible that he needs to develop at the MLB level.

When it comes to trade value, the book on Carlos Lee is simple: he has none, and barring an unlikely offensive explosion at the age of 35, he won’t have any next year either. In any case, the position that he plays is probably inconsequential. The real issue for the Astros here isn’t Carlos Lee, but instead the developmental track for Brett Wallace. This decision says to me that the player development sector of the Astros front office thinks Wallace needs time in AAA. If Carlos Lee can bring in any sort of value back in a trade – sometimes, the trade market is quite unpredictable – then that’s just gravy for Houston.