Derrek Lee is the Best First Baseman “Available”
In looking at the numbers for the upcoming first basemen, one thing stood out to me: Derrek Lee is good.
That’s kind of obvious if you watched what Lee did in his limited time with the Pittsburgh Pirates this year. Lee only had 101 at-bats, but hit for a .337/.398/.584 line with seven homers. But when comparing him to the rest of the free agents, Lee looks like the best option that is “available” to the Pirates.
I put that word in quotes because, let’s be honest, the best guys on the market will be Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Anyone who thinks the Pirates have a shot at either player is dreaming. The rest of the free agent options, on the other hand, are possibilities. When looking at the numbers, Lee looks like the best bet all around, sort of a poor man’s Fielder or Pujols.
In the last three years, only two players have combined for a better OPS than Lee: Fielder and Pujols. Lee has a combined .844 OPS in that time span, while Fielder and Pujols have combined for .956 and 1.007, respectively. Lee is in a tier by himself. The next highest belongs to Russell Branyan, at .817, followed closely by Carlos Pena (.814), Brad Hawpe (.810), and Michael Cuddyer (.806).
Then there’s straight power numbers. Out of the free agent options with 1200 or more at-bats over the last three years, Lee ranks third in slugging percentage with a .486 mark. The only two ahead of him, you guessed it, were Pujols (.598) and Fielder (.547). The next group included Carlos Pena (.468) and Michael Cuddyer (.465), with a drop off after that.
Of this same group of players with 1200 at-bats over the previous three seasons, Lee ranks fourth in at-bats per home runs, with a homer every 20.74 at-bats (or 24 homers in a 505 at-bat season, which is what Lee has averaged over the past few years). Pujols (13.76) and Fielder (14.98) are ahead of him, as well as Carlos Pena (15.24). After that, the only guy above a homer every 30 at-bats is Cuddyer, with a homer every 26.15 at-bats.
If Lee showed anything in 2011, it’s that he can still play. He got off to a slow start in Baltimore, but picked things up mid-season, and carried his hot streak over to the Pirates, where he posted numbers that were on pace with Fielder and Pujols. It’s clear that he’s the best option on the market, outside of those two. The question then becomes “how much”?
Lee signed a one year deal last year for $7.25 M with the Baltimore Orioles. The deal included incentives based on plate appearances, which would have taken the contract up to $10 M had Lee reached 600 plate appearances (he ended up earning an extra $1.25 M in bonuses, putting his total value at $8.5 M). He had thumb surgery in the off-season, which lowered his value a bit, and called for the incentive laden contract. He probably will enter the 2011-2012 off-season with more value, especially after his hot finish to the 2011 season.
The Pirates have an advantage with Lee. Since he is on their team, they get the first crack at him. I’d be surprised if that led to a deal before he hit the open market, but if they can’t resign him, they have the option of arbitration. If the Pirates offer Lee arbitration, they get one of two things. Either he accepts, and gets a raise over his $8.5 M compensation in 2011, or he declines, and the Pirates potentially get a draft pick. If he declines, the Pirates can still try to sign him, but if he signs elsewhere, the Pirates get a compensation pick between the first and second rounds of the 2012 draft.
The price tag is hard to pin down. Last year we saw a wide range for first baseman, especially first basemen that are in the 34 and up crowd, but still productive. Paul Konerko got a three year, $37.5 M deal to stay with the Chicago White Sox at the age of 35. However, Konerko has seen at least 540 at-bats in all but one year since 2004, not to mention he’s been consistently around a .900 OPS.
Aubrey Huff might be more comparable to Lee when you look at the overall results. Huff, at the age of 34, got two years and $22 M from the San Francisco Giants. The contract worked out to $10 M a year for two years, with a $10 M option in 2013 and a $2 M buyout. This came following a year where Huff had an .891 OPS and 26 homers in 569 at-bats, helping to lead San Francisco to the World Series. His career numbers suggest he’s not that good, although he’s definitely not as bad as his 2011 season indicates.
Adam LaRoche also received a two year deal, getting $16 M from the Arizona Diamondbacks. LaRoche is younger than everyone else mentioned, but is comparable to Lee, with an OPS consistently in the .800-.840 range, and good defense at first base.
Carlos Pena only received a one year deal, getting $10 M from the Cubs, although that was a rare deal where the team deferred half of the payment to 2012 in order to afford him.
Looking at these deals, and looking at the above numbers, it seems that a two year deal is what it will take for Lee this off-season. Unlike last off-season, Lee is healthy, so a one year, performance based deal, won’t cut it. I’d put his value between the $16 M that LaRoche received, and the $22 M that Huff received. Half the fan base is currently upset that the Pirates aren’t exercising the option of Ryan Doumit for two years and $15.5 M. I would much rather spend $5 M more and get Lee’s production for two years, rather than a catcher with no defense, and who might not even see more than 150 games in that two year span.
Alternatives to Lee
If the Pirates can’t sign Lee, they’ll get the draft pick (assuming they offer arbitration), but they’ll be stuck with a hole at first base. Outside of Lee, the only other players I would personally consider are Carlos Pena and Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer might not be worth talking about, as Minnesota has expressed a strong desire to bring him back. He’s spent his entire career there, and I’d be surprised if he left. Aside from that, he’s a Type A free agent, so he’d cost the Pirates their second round pick.
Carlos Pena isn’t a bad option, and is a guy I lobbied for throughout the season. Pena is an interesting situation. From 2007-2009 he combined for a .935 OPS. Those are Prince Fielder numbers on offense. He struggled in 2010, with a .732 OPS, and didn’t have the best season in 2011, with an .819 OPS. However, from May to the end of the season he had an .871 OPS. He’s got a lot of power, although he strikes out a lot, and his defense declined this year. As an overall package, Lee would be the best bet, although Pena wouldn’t be a bad alternative. In order to get either player, the Pirates would probably have to commit two years, and about $10 M per year. They’ve definitely got the payroll space. They also have a need for offense, for a first baseman, and for a middle of the lineup hitter. Adding either player would fill all three needs.
If the Pirates couldn’t bring back Lee, and couldn’t get Pena, there’s not anyone that really stands out on the current market. A lot of people will point to Casey Kotchman, who had a .306/.378/.422 line in 500 at-bats with Tampa Bay this year. However, Kotchman hasn’t put up these numbers in the previous three seasons, combining for a .695 OPS. It’s not that he’s never put up these numbers, as he was in the .840 range on two occasions early in his career.
I’ve always seen Matt Hague as a guy with Casey Kotchman upside. Best case scenario, you’re probably looking at an .800 OPS, with about 10-15 homers a year, max. Overall, I see Hague as a guy who could match Kotchman’s career numbers (.268/.336/.398 for a .733 OPS). If the Pirates don’t land Lee or Pena, I’d rather see them give Matt Hague a chance, rather than signing someone from the remaining list of free agent options. I think Hague is just as likely to give you the production that the remaining options will give, and if he proves me wrong and becomes more than a Kotchman type player, the Pirates have him for five more years beyond the 2012 season.