By John Perrotto
When Derek Lee became a free agent for the first time in his 15-year career last winter, teams didn’t exactly stampede in an attempt to sign him.
The big right-handed hitting first baseman received minimal interest before signing a one-year, $7-million contract with the Baltimore Orioles. Many baseball observers felt the Orioles overpaid at that price as Lee hit a combined .260 with 19 home runs for the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves in 2010.
Now with the Pirates after being acquired from the Orioles in a July 30 trade, Lee is set to become a free agent again this November. Lee has played just eight games since the trade because of a broken wrist suffered Aug. 3 when he was hit by a pitch by Cubs closer Carlos Marmol.
However, in those eight games, the Pirates have already seen enough to know they would like to bring Lee back for 2012 to provide some much-needed power and a veteran presence in a young lineup. In fact, a Pirates’ source indicated that the club would like to talk with Lee’s agent, Casey Close, before the season ends to see if they can work out a deal before he hits the open market.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen said he and his teammates would love to have Lee in ’12.
“For one thing, he’s a very good hitter and he makes everyone around him a better hitter,” McCutchen said. “Pitchers know he can do some damage, so they’re going to be a lot more careful to make sure they don’t walk guys ahead of D-Lee because they know he can drive them in. You can see the impact he has made in just the short time he’s been in the lineup. He’s been exactly what we need, a veteran hitter with some pop in the middle of the order.”
Lee is 12-for-30 with one triple, four home runs and 10 RBIs. Amazingly, just five Pirates have hit more homers than Lee the entire season and he has just 32 plate appearances-
McCutchen (20), Garrett Jones (15), Neil Walker (12), Ryan Doumit (7) and Brandon Wood (7).
Lee had spent his entire career in the NL before signing with the Orioles and said at the time of the trade that he welcomed a return to the senior circuit. Though Lee turns 36 today, he also was productive during his final six weeks with the Orioles, hitting .286 with eight home runs and a .524 slugging percentage in 37 games after batting .214 with four homers and a .310 slugging percentage in his first 48 games.
The Pirates would prefer to re-sign Lee for one year with a salary in the $7 million-$8 million range. However, a source familiar with their thinking said the Pirates would also consider signing Lee for one year with a vesting option for 2013 based on the number of plate appearances he would accumulate next season.
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball since 1988.