Derrek Lee vs. Garrett Jones vs. everyone else

Before I even get started with this post, I’m going to say this: The Pirates are probably going to re-sign Derrek Lee this off-season. They have money to burn, the general consensus seems to be that a job exists for him, he needs a job and most other places probably won’t find it for him, signing guys like Derrek Lee looks good for teams like the Pirates, etc. etc. When the Pirates do sign Derrek Lee to a one-year deal worth something like $6-8 million, I’ll probably write something like this: Well, it’s not a great move but it’s not an awful one. They have money to spend, we know what Garrett Jones is, it looks good for the club, he helps the defense, etc. etc. I’ll be in off-season mode, trying to tell myself that the Pirates are doing things to make themselves better and that 2012 isn’t another lost season. And when I write those things, I want someone to point me back to this post that I’m about to write right here. 

With Derrek Lee back from the disabled list and killing the ball, there’s an awful lot of talk about bringing him back to play first base in 2012. It’s not just idle fan talk, either. Dejan Kovacevic thinks it’s important and Clint Hurdle wants itCharlie tackled this last week in countering Clint Hurdle’s mindless pro-veteran babble, but I want to take it a step further. 

Honestly, I think Garrett Jones is a better option at first base right now than Lee is. Neal Huntington did a lot of things last winter that haven’t paid off, but he did hit the nail on the head with one idea: Garrett Jones is a platoon player. Last year, Jones played in 158 games and got 654 plate appearances, both of which lead the team. He was not good, hitting .247/.306/.414 with an abysmal .220/.261/.360 line against lefties. Since about 35% of his plate appareances last year were against lefties, Huntington went out and signed Matt Diaz and probably gave Clint Hurdle strict instructions to not play Jones against lefties. Jones (before Sunday’s game) has had 431 plate appearances this year and just 67 of them (15.5%) have been against lefties. He’s only started seven games with a lefty on the mound. As a result, Jones is hitting .243/.323/.442 on the year, with a strong .261/.348/.472 line against righties. That’s not great. That’s not really even good, but it is pretty acceptable. 

Now let’s look at Derrek Lee. He’s hitting .258/.313/.442 on the season. That’s almost identical to what Jones is hitting, if not quite as good because of the shade lower OBP. He doesn’t have a huge platoon split, with more power against righties but a much better OBP against lefties. He’s been much, much better since the All-Star Break, but he was Lyle Overbay bad before it. This first half/second half thing is becoming a bit of a trend for Lee. He was awful last year through June, before picking things up in July and especially in August and September after being traded to the Braves. Unless he stays scorching hot through September, it seems likely that he won’t bounce back quite as high this year as he did last year, though that’s obviously up in the air. 

Lee is 36 today. He’s not particularly durable any more, having played 141 games in 2009, 148 games in 2010, and he’ll probably play somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 games this year. He’s not getting better, he’s starting seasons slowly, and despite what we’ve seen from him this year I think there’s good reason to believe that PNC would suck his power dry next year. This year, his walk rate has plummetted and his strikeout rate is the highest it’s been since 2002 (and this is the second straight year his strikeout rate has risen from his peak levels). The red flags are all there. At his absolute best, Lee would be equal to a Garrett Jones/righty platoon and the potential for disaster is much higher with Lee than it would be with a Jones platoon.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying here: Jones isn’t a great option either. Right now if you played him on the big end of a platoon I’d say he’d approximate Lyle Overbay pre-meltodown, which is to say that he’d be just barely good enough to play regularly. The problem is that the Pirates just don’t have a lot of good options here. The free agent first base class is not impressive behind Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Pedro Alvarez is miles away from being an acceptable option at first base and if I had to guess right now, I’d say he starts 2012 with Indianapolis. Even if he transforms himself this winter and wins a job right out of spring training, neither Josh Harrison nor Brandon Wood nor Chase d’Arnaud are all that close to being useful options at third base.

I especially don’t like the “Re-Sign Derrek Lee” train because the rallying cry right now is, “Well, do you have a better idea?” There should always be a better idea for a team like the Pirates than signing a 36-year old to play first base. “Do you have a better idea?” is how the Pirates end up paying Lyle Overbay $5 million while Casey Kotchman has a career year for the Rays making $750,000. Play Jones and use Matt Hague against lefties and see what he can do. Scour the minor league free agent list and see if you can find another Jones or Kotchman. Look for a player that could get squeezed in a roster crunch. If you want to do something dramatic, see if the Marlins have gotten fed up with Logan Morrison and try to liberate him. Otherwise, play Jones, evaluate Hague, and see if Matt Curry is for real while keeping an eye on potential long-term solutions. Maybe Jones catches fire and dramatically raises his trade value. Maybe Hague surprises people. Neither can do that if Lee is playing first base.

Re-signing Lee would be a band-aid. It’d be pandering to fans. It’d be making a move for the sake of making a move. It’d be dangerously close to the Littlefield method of making a move for the sake of making a move, even though said move actually makes the team worse. How much better off would the Pirates have been without Overbay at all this year and with, say, Alex Presley in the outfield and Garrett Jones at first base from the get-go? Those who don’t learn from their mistakes are destined to repeat them.  

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.