Sunday, March 15, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Derrek Lee

He spent just 39 games with the Braves, but Derrek Lee became a massively important player for the Braves in a short time frame. He responded with a nice run to finish the year solidly after struggling with the Cubs that season. I'd call that a success.

Lee was in his 14th year in the bigs by the time he became a Brave. Originally the 14th overall pick by the Padres in 1993, Lee was a graduate of El Camino Fundamental High School. Seriously. That's the name of the school. It's in Sacramento and tremendous baseball writer Christina Kahrl went there while Jessica Chastain dropped out. Fortunately, things turned out well for her.  Lee hit from the get-go, hitting .280 with 34 HR as a 20 year-old in AA. A year later, he was receiving a cup of coffee after OPSing .876 in AAA. He looked like a future star for an already pretty good Padres team. Here's where things get a little funny so stay with me.

As I just said, Lee was the 14th overall pick in 1993 by San Diego. The Padres, at the time, was in the middle of a fire sale. Fred McGriff was sent to the Braves while Gary Sheffield was moved to the Marlins. Lee comes through the minors to join the Padres and immediately gets traded to the Marlins...who were also in a fire sale following their Eric Gregg-assisted World Series. Lee would then be traded to save salary.

Before that trade, Lee had developed into a pretty solid first baseman. He began a string of ten consecutive years with an OPS of .820 or better with a .281/.368/.507 slash in 2000. He even became a good base-stealer, swiping between 11 and 22 steals between 2002 and '05. Kind of reminds me of Freddie Freeman (with speed, of course). He finally started to grab some accolades in 2003 with some MVP votes and a Gold Glove in the year before being dealt to the Cubs.

Lee would become a huge force for the Cubs in 2005. He led the league in batting average (.335), OPS (1.080), and total bases while blasting a career best 46 homers and a league-leading 50 doubles. An All-Star for the first time, Lee also took home a Silver Slugger and took home his second Gold Glove. The year also made him a big MVP candidate, Lee's best season was not good enough because of Albert Pujols and our good buddy, Andruw Jones. Lee received just one first-place vote. The Cubs finishing four games under .500 and fourth in the division probably played a big role in that.

Over the next four years, Lee was good and mostly durable, but he wasn't quite the force he was in 2005. By 2010, Lee was approaching 35 and was a soon-to-be free agent. He was dealing with a bulging disk, but he was starting to finally hit. The Braves appeared like a good marriage. Chipper Jones had tore his ACL and Troy Glaus had remembered his knees didn't work. Lee was hardly a no-brainer, but the price tag was reasonable. The Braves sent a trio of pitchers - none of which have yet to make it to the majors.

It didn't take Lee long to hit for the Braves. In his third game, facing the Cubs in Chicago, he drove in three as the Braves rolled 16-5. He hit fourth and fifth with the Braves and posted an OPS almost a hundred points higher with his OBP seeing a significant increase from .335 to .384. He was what the Braves needed and it seemed, by the way he played down the stretch, the Braves were what Lee needed. Maybe his biggest hit with the Braves came on September 19. The Braves held a 2.5 game lead over the Padres and every win was big to help the Braves hold them off. With the scored tied 2-2, singles by Melky Cabrera and Omar Infante had chased R.A. Dickey. Two of the next three were retired with Martin Prado being intentionally walked between a pair of lefties. That brought up Lee with the bases loaded and two outs. Former Brave Manny Acosta and his super straight fastball entered. Lee would work the count full before sending one of Acosta's deliveries deep into the New York night. Grand Slam. Braves lead. Braves would go on to win 6-3 and finish a game above the Padres for the Wild Card.

Lee's postseason run with the Braves was mostly uneventful. He struck out three times in Game One, which the Braves lost 1-0. The first came when Infante led off the series with a double. The third came looking against Tim Lincecum to end the game. He was a bit more active in Game Two. He opened the sixth with a single that defensively challenged Pat Burrell over-ran. That put Lee on second and he would score on a Brian McCannn single to put the Braves on the board 4-1. He would open the pivitol eighth with a single and scored on Pablo Sandoval's error. The Braves would eventually tie it, setting up Rick Ankiel's 11th inning homer. However, as the series shifted to Atlanta, Lee was non-existent. He went 0-for-3 with a walk in Game Three before failing to reach base in Game Four as the Braves lost the series in four. He went 2-for-16 in the series with a walk and six K's. His final at-bat came in the 8th inning of Game 4. He K'd swinging.

Lee would play one more year, starting 2011 with the Orioles before a trade, similar to one that made Lee a Brave, also made Lee a brief Pirate. Again, Lee found his stroke in his brief run with a team. Lee would continue to work out and kept his options open for the 2012 season, but ultimately sat it out without "officially" retiring. There was talk that he was interested in joining the Yankees after Mark Teixeira's spring training injury in 2013, but he decided against it.

More Random Ex-Braves
Kevin Gryboski (2002-05)
Brian Jordan (1999-2001, 2005-06)
Tom Thobe (1995-96)

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