On the last day of 2010, the Orioles agreed to terms with first baseman Derrek Lee. While the exact terms of the deal are still not fully known, it appears the contract is for one year at $7-8 million with incentives enabling it to be worth up to $10 million.

Possible Camden Yard HRs for Lee

Derrek Lee is 35 years old and coming off a season in which he posted his lowest wOBA, .340, in the last ten years. wOBA is an advanced on base percentage-esque statistic. However, Lee had a MVP caliber season in 2009 posting a .412 wOBA and an OPS in the top 5 of Major League Baseball (MLB). While the chances of Lee repeating his MVP-caliber 2009 season are remote, we can identify some correctable reasons for Lee’s decline last year. First, Lee was hampered by a right thumb injury in 2010 that eventually required November surgery, as well as a bad back. While there is no guarantee he is completely recovered from either injury, he should be improved after an off season of healing. Also, he should see his power improve in 2011 simply due to playing 81 games at Camden Yards. During his games at Wrigley Field last year Lee hit 1 homerun to right field. He also hit another 8 fly balls to right field that despite being recorded as hits (non home runs) or outs at Wrigley Field would have been home runs in Baltimore. This is due to the shorter right field porch at Camden Yards (318 ft vs. 353 ft at Wrigley). The red and blue cubes circled in the graph below show these 8 non home runs. These 8 balls would have increased Lee’s 2010 home run total from 19 to 27. (Please note: this analysis was done in a quick and dirty fashion. Do not hold me to any exact distances on the Wrigley to Camden superimposition).

However, even if Lee does not improve from his 2010 performance, the deal to acquire him is still economically sound. In 2010, Lee managed to be worth 2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) – his worst given a full year in the majors. Given the amount of evidence we have on Lee it is safe to say that barring injury Lee’s floor performance for the 2011 season is his 2010 performance. Thus, at the current offseason free agent price of ~$5 million per win above replacement (WAR), Lee’s 2010 performance would be a break-even deal for the Orioles. Any production exceeding his 2010 season is a net win for the Orioles.

The other leading candidate for Orioles’ first base opening this offseason was Adam LaRoche. Economically, getting Lee at a one-year deal is better than paying Adam LaRoche a similar annual salary over three seasons (which is reportedly what the Orioles offered LaRoche). The Lee contract ties up the same amount of annual payroll for less years and the two players are virtually interchangeable. LaRoche is younger and his performance has been less variable over the past 3 seasons, however LaRoche’s best seasons do not approach Lee’s. In other words, Lee has a higher ceiling and a lower floor than LaRoche, despite the 2011 (AVG/OBP/SLG) projections for each being similar. Bill James projects LaRoche at (.261/.333/.470) and Lee at (.278/.365/.475). Furthermore, Lee is a significantly better defender in terms of UZR/150. UZR/150 is an advanced fielding rate statistic that considers a fielder’s errors, range, arm, and double play ability. LaRoche has a career UZR/150 of -2.7 versus Lee’s career UZR/150 of 0.9.

This is another nice signing for the Orioles this offseason. It makes the team more competitive this year without damaging any prospects or financially hamstringing the team in the future. The age-old mantra is ‘there are no bad one-year contracts‘ but even within the realm of one-year contracts this deal is a smart one.