By R.J. Anderson //
The Baltimore Orioles’ infield has received a makeover this offseason. Trades for Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy filled the holes on the left side, while the latest move – signing Derrek Lee – completes an infield around the venerable Brian Roberts. Lee comes at a steep price (the contract carries a max value of $10 million) despite hitting only .260/.347/.428 last season. Can a 35-year-old Lee recover from a down season in the game’s toughest division?
Perhaps burdened by an underachieving team, Lee struggled with the Chicago Cubs to the tune of a .251/.335/.416 line. The Cubs traded Lee to the playoff-surging Atlanta Braves following an injury to Troy Glaus in August and immediately saw his line shoot up: Lee hit .287/.384/.465 in 39 games worth of action with Atlanta. While the success with the Braves is encouraging relative to his Cubs’ struggles, it is not a sure sign that Lee is back. A more encouraging note: from 2007-2009, Lee hit .304/.384/.515 and averaged 26 home runs a season.
Beyond the surface, the big differences from Lee’s 2010 and prior seasons came down to strikeouts and batting average on balls in play. Lee fanned 17.4% of the time during his glory days, as opposed to 21.4% in 2010. He also saw his BABIP drop from .340 to .309. The decrease in batted ball success is at least partially responsible for Lee’s ISO dipping below .170 for the first time in his career (excluding his 236 plate appearance stint in 1999).
A sharp decline in BABIP can usually be waved off as either bad luck or random fluctuation. There seem to be larger concerns at work with Lee, though, as scouts have questioned his bat speed (according to ESPN’s Keith Law). Lee’s new division features left-handers with stellar fastballs – CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, and David Price for starters – meaning that Lee owning a platoon advantage may not be enough to find success.
As such, Lee becomes someone to watch on draft day. He’s worth a shot at the end of a standard mixed league draft, or a little earlier in shallower mixed leagues and AL-only formats.