PHILADELPHIA – As I went around the clubhouse, I passed on the word that Derrek Lee is coming to the Pirates from Baltimore. Most of the reactions were very quiet and even more muted, as the team had just lost again, and there’s something to be said for shouting “Yippee!” in a clubhouse where more than one player can lose his job as the result of trades.
Still, I was able to get one player smiling and saying, “Cool!”
Another asked if Lee could “get here in time for tomorrow’s game.”
Yet another said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for that guy. He’s coming for sure?”
Yep, for sure.
Rob Biertempfel and I confirmed that the Lee deal was set to be complete tonight, just as the Pirates were about to strike out for the 15th and final time in their 7-4 loss. Looks like the Pirates will pay only about $1 million of Lee’s remaining $2.6 million in salary, and it’s confirmed that they’ll only give up Class A first baseman Aaron Baker, who didn’t make my Baseball America top 30 list this year.
That makes this a pure salary dump on Baltimore’s part, which probably will have a lot of people wondering why the Pirates would want a player like that.
Here’s why I like Lee …
Let’s start with his official page, where you can check all his vitals for yourself.
Lee is 35, will turn 36 on Sept. 6, and has a .281 career average, .364 on-base percentage, 324 home runs and 1,060 RBIs. He’s also a two-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glover and a 2003 World Series champ with the Marlins.
But I know no one cares much about all that. What matters is what Lee will do.
If you look at Lee’s split statistics up there, check out his month-by-month. Yeah, he’s batting .246 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs, which is better than Lyle Overbay but not by some great margin. What counts to me is that Lee has a history of being a better second-half performer and, more important, that history has begun to play out: His average was .235 before the break, and it’s .298 since. He has 13 of his RBIs since the break. In a game two nights ago, he hit an opposite-field home run, doubled and walked.
That’s the Lee we came to know in all those years with the Cubs.
Now, one month doesn’t make much of a trend, so this is hardly a guarantee. But here’s guessing that Lee is the type who will perform better in a more important setting than the one in Baltimore, where the Orioles are 42-60 and probably opened the year 30 games behind the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.
Jerry Crasnick, ESPN’s outstanding baseball writer, sat just to my right in the Citizens Bank Park press box, and he shared this with me: “Derrek Lee might be one of the 5-10 best human beings in baseball. Just a tremendous guy, a real leader, someone who can really make a difference.”
I heard some of those same things about Lee over the years from infield instructor Perry Hill when he was here, some more earlier yesterday from Matt Diaz.
Now, I already can see the eyes rolling out there about the leadership stuff. The only reason I point it out here is that, whatever becomes of Lee the rest of this season, it strikes me as terribly unlikely that it will be due to a lack of effort.
I don’t know Overbay all that well. Seems like a nice enough guy. But what I do know from watching him on and off the field is that he’s a poor fit for this group in every way. Just tonight, when Pedro Alvarez was plunked, Overbay was sent up as a pinch-hitter, took one lazy swing at the first pitch he saw, bounced out to first and barely jogged to the base.
That’s old. It’s time for him to go, even if that means an outright release.
I like Lee for many more reasons than that he’s better than Overbay. (I wrote in my column the other day that a random Fed Leaguer from Pittsburgh would be better.) I like Lee’s history of OBP, I like the fact that he’s right-handed, I like that he’s had a .297 career average at PNC Park (which he’ll tell you is not his favorite place to hit), I like the fact that he’ll play outstanding defense, and I like more than anything this second-half trend.
All that said, the Pirates need more.
Watching Jose Tabata barely handle any activity here, he doesn’t look like he’ll be back soon. Another outfielder would be welcome, even if it means Tabata returns and either he or Alex Presley comes off the bench. More pitching would be nice, too, even though most of the players disagree with me on that.
This is a good start.