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O’s Add Derrek Lee

The Baltimore Orioles have continued their Extreme Makeover: Infield Edition by agreeing to terms on a one-year contract with free agent first baseman Derrek Lee. The exact terms of the deal aren’t yet known. But Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman suggests that Lee’s base salary figures to be in the $7-8 million range, and Yahoo’s Tim Brown adds that the deal includes a couple million bucks in possible incentives.

Last year, the O’s featured a collection of slack bats that combined for just 613 runs scored and a .309 wOBA. Both figures were second-worst among American League clubs, besting only the Seattle Mariners. And first base was the biggest problem spot. At the foremost offensive position on the diamond, Baltimore got the production of a sad-sack shortstop. The likes of Ty Wigginton, Garrett Atkins, Jake Fox and Rhyne Hughes combined for a .299 wOBA.

Granted, Lee is 35 years old and coming off a season split between the Cubs and Braves in which he posted his lowest wOBA (.340) since 1999. Given his age, there’s no guarantee that his power bounces back (Lee’s .168 Isolated Power was also his lowest since ’99, and 20 points below the cumulative MLB mark for first basemen). But Lee had a monstrous 2009 campaign (.412 wOBA, .273 ISO), and there’s hope that he’ll be able to rip more homers and doubles after an offseason of healing. He was hampered by a right thumb injury in 2010 that eventually required November surgery, as well as a bad back.

Lee still managed to be worth two Wins Above Replacement during his worst full year in the majors, and while the chances of another gargantuan 2009-style season are remote, he could be a three win player in 2011 with more thump. Getting him on a one-year deal certainly beats paying Adam LaRoche a similar salary over three seasons. In adding Lee, the Orioles improved the lineup at another spot without making a long-term commitment that might have looked foolish come 2012 or 2013.

Runs shouldn’t be so hard to come by for Baltimore next season. Lee joins Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy and a presumably healthier Brian Roberts (limited to 59 games due to a herniated disc in his back) in an infield that should produce considerably more in 2011. Add in some progression from Matt Wieters and Adam Jones, plus a modestly better year from Nick Markakis, and the O’s could have a pretty solid offense. Here are the ZiPS projections for a possible Baltimore lineup (except for Hardy, who doesn’t have a projection yet; I used his career averages):

Another note: Lee’s ZiPS projection comes with the Braves, and Reynolds’ with the D-Backs.

I entered that possible one-through-nine into David Pinto’s Lineup Analysis Tool, and got an average of about five runs scored per game. Obviously that lineup won’t play 162 games, so it overstates how potent this Orioles’ offensive attack figures to be. But this exercise shows that the team shouldn’t scrape by with around 3.8 runs per game like in 2010. Baltimore could also choose to shift Scott back to left field and pursue a DH, given that the supply of bats (Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, Russell Branyan, Johnny Damon among them) exceeds demand.

Contention remains an extreme long shot for the Orioles in 2011. The club’s offense still doesn’t measure up to those in Boston and the Bronx. And while the team has several promising starters either already in the majors or close to it, ZiPS projects only Brian Matusz to be at least an average starter next season. That said, the Orioles have significantly improved their offense without making outlandish long-term commitments or surrendering prime prospects. They’re clearly a better team now than they were in November, and there’s no reason to think they’ve compromised their long-term rebuilding effort.