Last Saturday, Jon Heyman mused via Twitter that he hadn’t yet seen any trade interest develop in Astros’ first baseman/outfielder Carlos Lee. The tone of Heyman’s tweet was one of surprise; he noted “Guy did have 90-plus rbis for awful team.”
Putting aside Heyman’s reliance on RBI to make his point, the question remains. Is there a trade market for Carlos Lee? He will turn 36 next June and is in the last year of six-year/$100 million contract with the Astros. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Astros still owe Lee $19 million.
The key to a Lee trade, of course, will be the Astros’ willingness to absorb a substantial amount of Lee’s remaining salary. Although Lee posted a 3.2 WAR in 2011, and was thus valued by FanGraphs as worth $14.5 million, much of that WAR total was supported by good defensive ratings in left field that many find hard to believe. Before 2011, Lee hadn’t posted a positive UZR for his play in left field since his 2004 season with the White Sox.
First base is another story, and good one. In the last two seasons, Lee’s played just under 800 innings at first, and has posted a cumulative UZR of 4.9. That ranks him seventh among all National Leaguers who’ve logged more than 650 innings at first base over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons combined.
Most of Lee’s value, of course, comes from his offensive production. Lee bounced back offensively in 2011 after a down year in 2010, although the big power numbers Lee displayed in mid-2000’s are all but gone. His slash over the last three seasons is .274/.325/.451 with a wOBA of .334 and a wRC+ of 107. His 3-year wOBA ranks him 30th among qualified National League outfielders. Among qualified National League first basemen, he would rank 14th, above only James Loney and Jorge Cantu.
I’ve seen tweets suggesting Lee as a fit for the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians. The Indians make a great deal of sense. The Braves, not so much.
The Braves are set at first with Freddie Freeman, so Lee likely would play most of the time in left field. Martin Prado was the Braves main left fielder in 2011 with back up from Eric Hinske, Jose Constanza and Matt Diaz. All four players are due back with the Braves in 2012. Prado did have a down year in 2011 as he battled injuries. But as my colleague Jason Roberts wrote last month, there are good reasons to believe that Prado will bounce back offensively in 2012.
The real issue with Lee on the Braves is defense. Of the Braves’ expected starting pitchers in 2012, only Tim Hudson has a ground ball rate higher than 42%. That means a lot of fly balls to left field that need to be tracked down and caught. Prado is good at that. Hinske is serviceable at that. Lee –despite his high UZR in 2011 — is not particularly good at that.
The Indians, on the other hand, could use more offensive production at first base where Lee is a pretty good fielder. Matt LaPorta took the laboring oar at first for the Indians in 2011, playing a bit more than 800 innings. Catcher Carlos Santana platooned with LaPorta at first, logging 565 innings. But Santana is principally a catcher and was played at first to keep his bat in the lineup when he needed a rest from catching. And his bat was needed because LaPorta posted a paltry .247/.299/.412 with a wOBA of just .309 and wRC+ of 93. The Indians are considering giving Michael Brantley a look at first base, but that doesn’t solve any offensive problems. Brantley’s wOBA and wRC+ in 2011 were exactly the same as LaPorta’s.
LaPorta also has much room for improvement defensively at first. In his 800-plus innings at first in 2011, he recorded -7 Defensive Runs Saved, a .787 RZR and a UZR of -5.9. The only American League first baseman who rated worse in all three defensive metrics was Eric Hosmer of the Kansas City Royals.
Even at 36, Lee would be an upgrade for the Indians at first base, both offensively and defensively. The Astros have a lot of players making league minimum in 2012, giving them some financial flexibility to continue paying Lee’s salary for the right combination of prospects coming back from the Indians. The deal makes sense for both teams.