Despite the incessant postseason hype of all things Scott Podsednik in 2005, the Brewers really got a steal in nabbing Carlos Lee from the White Sox for him. Ironically, though, while the trade is often underrated from the Brewers’ side, Lee the player has been a little overrated both by media and fans. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate all that “El Caballo” brings to the table. It’s just that what superficially looks like a career year fell a little short of what many thought he was capable of.
Strengths: Lee set career highs in home runs, runs batted in and doubles. His 34.3 VORP was solid, placing him 13th among all major league leftfielders. Although his batting average dropped in 2005, taking his on-base percentage with it, Lee usually makes up for low walk totals with a good average. Carlos supplied much needed power to the middle of the Brewers’ order, while providing solid baserunning for such a big guy (13 steals). He had a huge first half of the season and was named to the NL All-Star team, before unfortunately tailing off as the season progressed. Usually Lee is just the opposite; he’s normally known to have slow starts and get hot along with the weather. There were times in the first half when Lee carried the Brewers (remember, Jenkins was stone-cold in the first half), and the rumors that came with him about being some sort of clubhouse cancer seemed to be unfounded. Overall, he had a good Brewers debut and- along with Brady Clark- made Brewers fans forget about Podsednik.
Weaknesses: The problem with Lee is that while his numbers look fine on the surface, they can often make him look like more of a star than he actually is. 32 homers and 114 RBI look nice on the scoreboard, but Lee also saw his on-base percentage dip to .324, his lowest since 2001. His batting average and slugging percentage also dipped to their lowest points since 2002. Throw in his horrific -9 FRAA in left field, and we see that Lee either had a down year, or his 2004 with the White Sox was somewhat of a fluke. 2004 saw him bat .305 with a nice .366 OBP, along with a career-high .525 slugging percentage and +14 FRAA. Problem is, there was never really any precedent of that kind of performance from earlier in his career. If you throw out 2004 and look at his career as 1999-2003, followed by 2005, you can see the possibility exists that we may have seen the best he has to offer. Those years are remarkably similar, and while all are very solid, they aren’t representative of an All-Star caliber player. However, despite my tone, I’m really not knocking El Caballo. Like I said, there were times he carried the Brewers offense and yes, he was an absolute steal for Scott Podsednik. He’s yet another shining example of Doug Melvin’s terrific moves as Brewers GM. With his free agency looming, though, and his price tag going nowhere but up, the Brewers would be prudent to take a look at the other options in their system for 2007 and beyond.
Outlook: Fortunately, it seems that the organization is doing just that. Any offseason contract extension talks were cursory at most, and all indications are that the Brewers will let Lee walk in free agency after 2006. This of course brings up the question that always follows- should the Brewers be trying to trade him before the 2006 deadline? I would answer with an emphatic “yes”. Players like Carlos are perfect for deadline deals. Contenders are seemingly always looking for more power in the order, often in the form of an outfielder or (in the AL) just a big bat they can throw in the DH slot. I don’t think Lee will fall below his 2005 numbers in ’06, and what do you think the Crew could get for a left-fielder hitting .275 with 20 homers at the All-Star break? Plus, we have Corey Hart waiting in the wings to probably duplicate anything Lee can currently do, not to mention Nelson Cruz having nowhere to play. My projection for Carlos Lee in 2006:
30 homers, 86 RBI, 10 steals, .269/.330/.482.
I’ll also predict that he will be traded before the July trade deadline, regardless of whether the Brewers seem to be contending or not. A deal will be easily justified considering the return the Brewers would receive and the readiness of Corey Hart or Nelson Cruz to take over in left.