Monday, July 26, 2010

D. Lee: How to admit you're not a winner without actually saying so

When he was first traded to the Cubs, I thought that Derrek Lee was as classy of a player as there was in the NL. He also chose that time to start putting up some pretty impressive numbers, and so I thought the Cubs at least had a player around that I could root for. Now, in 2004, I was probably closer to being a bandwagon Cubs fan than I've ever been at any time in my life. Let me explain that real quick -- I grew up a Cards and a Yanks fan, but lost touch with baseball a bit when basketball was top dog in sports. I also drifted away from the Cards a bit because of some down years and then Tony La Russa's decision to force out my all time favorite player -- Ozzie Smith -- in favor of Royce Clayton. Had the Cards won the NLCS in '96 and faced the Yankees in the World Series, this point would be moot. 1996 was also the year I had moved to the Chicago area, and was dating my future wife, who is a HUGE Cubs fan. I had so much fun watching the 2003 post season through her (and other Cubs fans that I know) that it was tough not to get a little caught up in things. As 2004 opened, my wife and I made our first trip to Spring Training in Arizona, and it seemed like the Cubs were about to put it all together. Statistically speaking, they had a better year than many realize, but what you saw playing out in reality was a team built to win that had put itself in position to do just that -- and then choked the whole thing away with as unlikeable group of players as I've ever watched. Chief among them for me -- Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou and (possibly my least favorite player of all time) LaTroy Hawkins. In '05, I made the first of my yearly treks down to Busch Stadium -- this one for the final time at the second version of the park -- and it rekindled my love of the Cardinals.


(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Sorry, that was quite a tangent....but does speak to the respect I had for Derrek Lee. He's hit .282, averaged around 25-26 homers, stolen over 100 bases and driven in 983 runs in his Cubs career. He's played gold glove caliber defense for most of this time, and has won the award in '05 and '07. He also won the Silver Slugger award in '05. He had done all of this with a quiet grace, and I took him as a player coming into his own that lead by example. He was easy to root for. The one thing I always bristled at -- and, yes, largely because of my rooting interests -- was that the Cubs had their answer to Albert Pujols. Sorry, Derrek Lee has NEVER been anything other than a poor man's Pujols on his best days.

Earlier this week, Jayson Stark of ESPN tweeted the following:

A source who has known Lee for years says it's "highly doubtful" he'd waive his full no-trade to OK any deal at this stage.

My opinion of Lee has been on the decline over the last few seasons, and I think it may have bottomed out with this revelation. Obviously, until we get to the end of this season, we can't close the door on the topic, but to me, this confirms what I've started to suspect for the last couple of seasons -- that Derrek Lee just isn't a player that is driven to win. I started to notice a shift in his body language the last few years and saw signs that he was far to nonchalant towards the game. Sure, there were the flashes of anger as he'd slam his bat down after striking out at a key moment in a game or when he'd hit into a(nother) double play -- it got to a point where the sports media here in Chicago started calling him "DP Lee". He rebounded nicely in the second half last year and I thought his impending free agency coupled with the arrival of Rudy Jaramillo would be key factors in a big year for Lee.

That hasn't been the case. He's currently hitting .251 with 11 HR and 44 RBI. Not awful numbers, but not what you've come to expect from D-Lee. According to, his runs above replacement has dropped from 45 in '09 to 4 in '10. Pretty big drop, huh? His wins above replacement has slipped from 4.7 to .4 in the same time. I've also heard mention on WSCR (a Chicago sports/talk radio station) that both Lee and Aramis Ramirez were players that had refused instruction from Jaramillo earlier in the season. They may not have agreed with his teachings, but given the sluggish start both players got off to, there is no earthly reason why you wouldn't talk to your hitting coach to see what he might suggest.

If Lee refuses to be traded to a contender, that cements it for me. (How could a Southern Cal native not see the benefit of playing in LA?) He's just another player out there who puts up good numbers, plays the game well during his time and then fades into the background after he retires. I think Lee has the talent to have been an all time great player -- if not at least an all time great Cub. As it is, I don't think he'll be all that fondly remembered....He'll be missed next year certainly, but 10 years from now, I don't think he pops to mind as a defining player of this current Cubs team. And that's too bad, because I think we're seeing proof that he is all too good a representative of this decade's Cubs -- talented, capable, but ultimately forgettable.

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