Lee and LaRoche

With the off-season winding down and a need at first base, the Orioles targeted Derrek Lee and Adam LaRoche as the best options remaining in free agency. They ended up signing Lee because he was willing to accept a one year deal, while LaRoche was holding out for a multi-year contract. His demands are reportedly going to be met, as he’s rumored to be nearing a two-year deal to sign with the Washington Nationals.

The shakeout seems a little bit backward to me. LaRoche is an inferior player to Lee in just about every way, and yet he’s the one getting the multi-year contract. Let’s compare their skills, shall we?

Power? LaRoche has a career ISO of .216, boosted by his one big power year back in 2006. Lee also has a career ISO of .216, boosted by two big power spikes – one in 2005, and one in 2009.

Contact? LaRoche has a career 25 percent strikeout rate, and posted a career high 30.7 percent mark last year. Lee has a career 23.2 percent strikeout rate, and was just above that at 24.5 percent in 2010.

Patience? LaRoche has a 9.2 percent walk rate for his career, compared to 11.2 percent for Lee. LaRoche has had a double digit walk rate once in his career, while Lee has done better than that every year since 2001 with the exception of 2004, when his walk rate was 9.9 percent.

Defense? LaRoche has a career UZR of -15.9, while Lee is at +7.3. Don’t like UZR? Cubs fans gave Lee a 61 in the Fans Scouting Report, compared to the 52 that Arizona fans gave LaRoche.

Recent success? LaRoche had a .339 wOBA in 2009, compared to the .340 mark that Lee posted last year. If you go back one year, LaRoche did post a .357 wOBA, but Lee posted a .412 wOBA in 2009, blowing him out of the water. Lee was better in 2008, and in 2007… you get the idea.

The only number in LaRoche’s favor is date of birth. He is four years younger than Lee, so his slip in 2010 can be perceived as more of an off-year, while Lee’s slip is assumed to be age-related decline. It fits the narrative: guys get worse in their mid-30s, so we’re more apt to accept Lee’s regression as real, while looking back at LaRcohe’s 2006-2009 performance and thinking that he still has time to rebound.

The problem is that Lee is starting from a much higher tier, so even if he’s regressing, he still has a pretty long way to fall before he reaches Adam LaRoche levels of expected production. After all, Lee is a guy who put up +12.3 WAR from 2007-2009, more than LaRoche has accumulated in his entire career. We shouldn’t let one season where they were equally productive let us fall into the trap of believing that they are now on the same level.

If Lee is only worth a one year deal in this market, than LaRoche should be as well. I can’t see the justification giving the inferior player a longer deal, even if he is younger.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.