Derrek Lee decided against returning to the team that drafted him way back in 1993, the San Diego Padres, choosing instead to play in a far more hitter-friendly park in Camden Yards by agreeing to terms with the Baltimore Orioles on a one-year pact.
He took less money, $8 million compared to the $8.5 million reportedly offered by the Padres, to try to make the AL East’s bottom-dweller relevant again. The task may seem difficult, but the now 35-year-old revitalized the Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs. Who’s to say he can’t help the Orioles move up in the standings as well?
Compared to other power hitters of his era, Lee hasn’t taken home much hardware. He has nonetheless had a brilliant career. Highlights include helping the Marlins win the World Series in 2003, appearing in two All-Star games, collecting two well-deserved Gold Gloves, and finishing 3rd in the MVP voting in 2005.
Safe to say, he has been one of the more dependable players of the 2000s. He began the millennium as a 24-year-old and put himself on the map, hitting 28 homers, driving in 70 runs, and batting .281 with an efficient .368 On Base Percentage for the Marlins. He would continue to consistently put up these numbers as their everyday first-baseman and earned a name for himself as an offensive threat who rarely missed a game.
Like many star players the Marlins developed, he became too rich for their blood: due to financial constraints they were forced to let him leave as a free-agent after their memorable 2003 campaign, a season in which he surpassed the 30-homer and 90-rbi thresholds for the first time. He signed with the Cubs and did everything statistically possible to put the cursed franchise into championship contention.
His second season in Chicago was by far his best, as his finish in the MVP voting suggests. He led the National League with a .335 batting average, 57 points better than his first season with the team, and clubbed 47 home-runs, drove in 107 runs, scored 120 times, knocked out a league-leading 199 hits–including 50 doubles–and even swiped 15 bases in 18 attempts. He was in the hunt for the Triple Crown well into the summer and lost out on the MVP because Albert Pujols was Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones, despite batting just .263, leapfrogged him in smashing 51 homers and driving in 128.
Injuries cut his 2006 season short, but that was seemingly the only time he missed action. Discounting that year he was sidelined a grand total of 37 games from 2000-2009. His home-run total dipped substantially from his superb performance in 2005, but he continued to contribute solidly for the bad-luck Cubs. In 2009, at the age of 33, Lee had the second-best season of his career, mashing 35 homers and plating 111 runs while hitting .306 . The following year the tall right-handed slugger was painfully shipped off to the Atlanta Braves. The fan-favorite and franchise player was gone from Wrigley, with Chicago still searching for that elusive championship.
Baltimore doesn’t have that high of aspirations. Getting out of the brutal AL East’s cellar will be enough work. For the past few years they have looked to make a big splash in an effort to quicken the rebuilding process and be contenders far sooner than expected. They made an offer to first baseman Mark Teixeira in 2008 and have since been in on many of the highest-profile free-agents on the market. All turned them down. Lee isn’t young by any means. He isn’t Teixeira at this stage of his career. But he can still hit and still field. And, given the Orioles youth, he should provide veteran leadership on the field and in the clubhouse while also serving as a mentor.
Aside from acquiring third baseman Mark Reynolds from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who has 121 homers in his four-year career, this has been an offseason full of Plan B’s for Baltimore. First, they tried to acquire shortstop Jason Bartlett from the Tampa Bay Rays, only to make a far more intelligent trade in acquiring J.J. Hardy from the Minnesota Twins. Then they targeted reliever Kevin Gregg, only to sign a much cheaper and younger option in Jeremy Accardo. And finally, after having a three-year deal turned down by first-baseman Adam LaRoche (whose expectations are unrealistic), they wisely turned their attention to Lee.
Reynolds will hit 40-plus homers for the Orioles. Hardy will bring a solid glove and an efficient bat equipped with surprising power. And Lee, given the durability, power, average, defense, and leadership he will bring to Baltimore, will complete a revamped infield and undoubtedly impact a team trying to raise some eyebrows and move up in the standings. Considering how aggressive they have been this winter particularly bolstering their offense, it would be surprising if they didn’t accomplish their goal.