Derrek Lee surprised me in 2009. Never did I think he would put up the kind of numbers he did. His 2009 season was a drastic improvement over his 2008 season, with 15 more home runs, 21 more RBI, a 15 point improvement in his batting average, and an OBP that went from .361 in 2008 to .393 in 2009.
The reason this surprised me so much was because he did all this at the age of 33. Now, in real life 33 years old is not considered an old man at all. In baseball years however, that means you are teetering on the edge of being "over the hill."
Derrek Lee is a fine ball player and he has done very well in his Cubs career. He always carries himself in a professional manner and it's safe to say he is one of the few players in baseball that has actually earned what he was paid. The only real hiccup he had during his Cubs years was when he had the wrist injury from a collision with Rafael Furcal which was not his fault.
So "D-Lee" is going to be a free agent after the 2010 season. It's a no-brainer, the Cubs should re-sign him, right? Ummmm, not so fast. There are several reasons the Cubs should not consider bringing back our reliable first baseman. I will go over these reasons here.
Lee did have a very good 2009 season and I fully expect him to put up another fine season in 2010. Players in their contract years always seem to exceed expectations somehow and I think Lee will be no different in this regard.
However, Lee is on the downside of his career. He will be 34 at the end of this season and players tend to start producing less and less as they get older and they also become a bigger liability for injury as well.
Lee, who will make $13 million dollars in 2010, will certainly be in line for a pay cut due to his age. How much of a pay cut will he be willing to take though especially if he puts up another great season? This will be his final chance for one big payday before he retires and he isn't going to just let it go without a fight.
If Lee were willing to sign no more than a two year deal for around $8 million a season then I would be willing to give that to him because he can still be productive for another two seasons at least and I would hate to lose his defense at 1B which is invaluable to the Cubs.
In my opinion, though, there is no way Lee would agree to this deal. I believe he will want at least three years for no less then $10 million per season. That is just my guess but with this being his last shot at a big payday it seems a reasonable one. He just would not be worth that type of deal. He is old and expensive and that is just not what you want. I know that's a harsh thing to say but it's the truth and this is business.
So what alternatives do the Cubs have if we let Derrek Lee walk away? Well there are a few things that can happen here.
The Cubs for the first time in a long time have a surplus of good prospects down on the farm. It's been some time since our farm system has been this full of well-regarded players. One of these players is Josh Vitters. Josh Vitters was the Cubs first-round pick (third overall) in the 2007 draft. He was drafted out of high school as a third baseman and he is only 20 years old.
Vitters is a very good hitter that has shown he can hit for average and hit for pretty good power. The only knock on his hitting is that he is not very patient but scouts feel that will improve with age. The place where Vitters gets questioned a lot is his defense. So far he has shown not to be great at defense at 3B. In his time with the Cubs he has not shown significant improvement in that area which is a concern.
Many have speculated that Vitters is a natural candidate to move across the field over to 1B where defense isn't as important as 3B. Also the Cubs have a very good third baseman already in Aramis Ramirez who can opt out of his contract at the end of this season but will more than likely stay here.
So if the Cubs keep Aramis Ramirez around then Vitters has to be moved somewhere and the only spots for him to go are 1B or the outfield. Perhaps Vitters will wind up being our future first baseman. This move would make sense given new owner Tom Ricketts' declaration that he wants to spend more money on the farm system and less on free agents.
Another option for our potential 1B opening in 2011 is a free agent. Carlos Pena of the Tampa Bay Rays and Adam Dunn of the Washington Nationals are going to be free agents after 2010. Both are younger than Derrek Lee and both will probably cost less money. Both of these guys are high power, high OBP guys that would fit nicely at 1B for us.
Of course, neither of them plays defense nearly as well as D-Lee but I think people would tend to overlook that if one of them were to hit 40-50 home runs for us. With the power they have it isn't completely out of the question. Carlos Pena will be 32 in May and Adam Dunn won't turn 31 until November which would mean a two to three year deal for either one would be fine.
The last possibility I am going to mention, and the least likely, is trading for Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres. The Padres have publicly stated already that they will not be able to afford to keep Gonzalez when he becomes a free agent after the 2011 season. He will be in line for a huge payday and the Padres with their small market payroll simply cannot afford him.
Many teams have long desired Gonzalez with the Red Sox and the Mariners already having tried to work out trades for him in the past. If the Cubs wanted to get involved in a trade for him they certainly would have the players to get him but this would go against what Ricketts has said he wants to do here so I see this as not happening.