Should Anyone Sign Derrek Lee?

Derrek Lee hasn’t retired just yet. According to Ken Rosenthal, Lee is looking to play during the upcoming season, but he’s looking for the “right opportunity.” Lee struggled early on last season, but managed to turn his season around upon being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates — albeit, in a very small sample. Still, Lee’s resurgence with Pittsburgh hasn’t led to a ton of offers. Given the current state of the position, Lee probably shouldn’t be selective about his opportunities.

Lee’s overall performance was poor last season, but he wasn’t completely useless. Lee’s slash line of .267/.325/.446 was pretty comparable to the average first basemen’s slash line of .263/.338/.439. Being an average first baseman isn’t particularly impressive, but Lee also carries some defensive value, which should make him slightly more appealing to teams. Teams shouldn’t necessarily be excited to employ Lee full-time anymore, but he does at least have some value.

Lee only seems to want to play in certain situations, however. Based on his performance last season, he’s not in a position to start making demands. Back in December, Lee allegedly turned down a deal from the San Diego Padres that was worth more than $8 million. It’s no surprise that the Padres traded for Yonder Alonso that same month.
As one of the readers pointed out in the comments, I misread the date on this article. Lee did, however, turn down an arbitration offer from the Pirates earlier this off-season.

Problem is, there aren’t a lot of jobs available for first basemen. As Matt Klaassen’s Positional Power Rankings article showed, even the low ranking teams are relatively set at the position.

The teams Matt ranked the lowest — the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres — both have young prospects in Justin Smoak and the aforementioned Alonso. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles had Lee last season, but seem to be heading in a different direction this year. And the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies have expensive veterans at those positions. The Washington Nationals, meanwhile, already have both Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse, both of whom are capable of playing first.

That leaves three teams in the bottom ten where Lee could fit in — the Oakland Athletics, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Lee actually stacks up pretty favorably when compared to the A’s main options at first base.

Player Bats ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG
Derrek Lee R 0.260 0.328 0.433
Daric Barton L 0.241 0.351 0.359
Brandon Allen L 0.212 0.310 0.375

ZiPS projects Lee to have a much higher batting average and slugging percentage than either Daric Barton or Brandon Allen this season. But while it’s tempting to look at the difference in slugging percentage and think Lee will be miles better than either guy, there’s no telling how much Oakland’s park would suppress his numbers. Oakland also has Chris Carter coming up and looking for playing time, and that could affect whether they’ll want to sign Lee. Carter has some flaws, but his power potential is tempting and he comes pretty cheap. There’s also the issue of whether Lee wants to play for the A’s. If he’s looking to win or make a significant amount of money, Oakland is not his team.

James Loney has been a bit of a punch line among certain analysts, but he performed better than Lee last season. Based on the ZiPS projections for this season, that trend might continue.

Player Bats ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG
Derrek Lee R 0.260 0.328 0.433
James Loney L 0.277 0.334 0.407

Once again, the only area where Lee is projected to do better is slugging percentage. The difference isn’t drastic, and Loney could make up the different with his solid defense. While it looked like Loney could have been a candidate to be non-tendered this off-season, the Dodgers decided to stand by him for at least another year. Whether or not he deserves it, the Dodgers seem committed to him at this time. Considering Lee might not be a significant upgrade, that might have been the better move.

It’s unclear whether the Blue Jays would be willing to pull the plug on Adam Lind, but Toronto might not be a terrible destination for Lee.

Player Bats ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG
Derrek Lee R 0.260 0.328 0.433
Adam Lind L 0.264 0.315 0.466

Lind definitely has power, but it’s come with terrible on-base percentages the past two seasons. He also regarded as a below-average fielder. Unless Lind is able to turn back the clock to 2009, Lee might be an upgrade here. With the extra Wild Card team this season, Toronto’s chances of making the playoffs are definitely better. That could entice Lee to sign with them if they decide to offer him a contract.

The only other team on the list that hasn’t already signed someone this off-season — and where Lee represents a potential upgrade — is the Texas Rangers. Again, though, it’s tough to argue Lee would be much better than Mitch Moreland. And he also comes much cheaper than Lee. With Mike Napoli still recovering from an ankle injury, he could see more time at first, so the team may not want to sign another first baseman.

Derrek Lee doesn’t have a lot of options. There aren’t many teams in the market for first basemen, and the teams that might consider Lee don’t have much incentive to pay him much more than their internal options. The only team that might make sense for Lee is the Blue Jays. It’s unclear whether Lee would want to relocate to Canada to continue his playing career, but he’s not in a situation where he can really start dictating his playing situation. Unless he lowers his demands, a return to the majors seems unlikely.



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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


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