Just hours after acquiring their potential first baseman of the future (Chris Davis), the Baltimore Orioles shipped off their first baseman of the present – Derrek Lee – to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for yet another young first baseman in Aaron Baker. Selected in the 11th round of the 2009 draft, Baker has produced above-average offensive marks since turning pro. Meanwhile, his age (23) and his level (A+) probably give him an advantage. Although Baker may never turn in to anything more than an organizational soldier, his power potential is worth taking a shot on; especially since the 35-year-old Lee is not in Baltimore’s post-2011 plans.
The Orioles signed Lee to a one-year, $7.25 million contract this offseason, but have gotten little in return from him on the field. After posting a .340 wOBA last season, Lee has a .310 wOBA in 85 games this year. A player in his mid-30s, and moving from the NL to the AL, a decline in production should not be a surprise. That said, Lee has also been banged up battling various injuries dating back to spring training which has not helped either.
The 2011 season has been a unique one; so much so that Lee finds himself in the midst of a playoff race by becoming a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in late July. Prior to the start of the season, the Pirates signed their own stopgap first baseman – Lyle Overbay. Despite going in the opposite direct as Lee – moving from the AL East to the NL Central – Overbay has been well below average at the plate this season. In just under 400 plate appearances, he has a .288 wOBA with a wRC+ of 79. He has also been a subpar defender, giving the Pirates -0.9 WAR for their $5 million investment. Lee may not be the player he once was, but it is hard to see a scenario in which he is not an upgrade from Overbay both offensively and defensively.
Despite the overall production from Lee this season, he has turned things around recently. His plate discipline is out of whack; however, he is showing that he has some pop left in his right-handed bat. Once activated from the disabled list (oblique) on June 4, he has posted a .197 ISO with 18 extra-base hits in 45 games. Over the past two weeks, he has simply caught fire with a .442 wOBA in his last 50 plate appearances.
For the Pirates, the move is unlikely to put them over the top. Meanwhile, it provides the club with marginal upgrade (half a win or so) without mortgaging a key piece of the future. For Baltimore, the move is a solid one regardless of return. Lee is a sellable asset and will not be around when the Orioles are viable contenders. Baker, on the other hand, has youth and upside which is more than Lee will provide the club after the season. It also provides another chance for new Oriole Chris Davis to shed the dreaded quad-A label he has earned.