The Situation: Derrek Lee(notes) isn't a lock for 158 games a year any more, but when he's on the field, he can still be one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball. Last year, he had his best season since his peak in 2005 with 35 homers and an OPS of .972, but due to recurrent neck problems he only played 141 games. Fortunately, he didn't have any problems with the wrist that limited him to 50 games in 2006 and held him below 22 homers in 2007 and 2008. Lee will be looking to earn another contract with his performance this year, but he's acquired a reputation for fragility, one that he'll find hard to shake now that he's 34 years old.
The Question: Does the aging Derrek Lee have another elite season in him?
The Analysis: The bulging disc in Lee's neck is nothing new. It's been with him, sometimes spasmodic and sometimes not, since 2007. He has missed games on five separate occasions in the past three seasons and there's no indication that the injuries are entirely a thing of the past. He described the various triggers a year ago: "They said it can [flare up] if you sleep funny or do something funny, it can aggravate it... It's one of those things where you can't move too well."
The neck clearly hasn't affected his bat so much as his ability to stay on the field. And it is a good reason to guess that he will not again play 155 games, or 150 this season. Chicago's fortunes will be greatly affected by whether he sees 500 PA, or 600, or the near-700 that he saw in 2004, 2005, and 2008. His decline at this stage in his career is less likely to be in his bat and more likely in his playing time.
However, Lee may also have gotten lucky with his homers last year. His flyball and home run rates spiked last year, and many of his numbers were the second-highest of his career, behind only his great 2005, during which he posted career highs in nearly everything. In 2009, he had the second-most homers, second-most total bases, second-highest slugging, and second-highest OPS, all far above his career averages. Even if his skill holds steady in 2010, his results are bound to regress to the mean.
The Forecast for 2010: As Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus writes, "(Lee) can hit for average and has a good eye at the plate ... (But) if you're counting on Lee to put up numbers like he did in '09, rather than like '07-'08, to carry the Cubs on offense, there's a problem."
The consensus among the major projection systems is that he is likely to hit around .290 with 23-27 homers and 80-90 RBI, as per usual. That's also precisely his average season from 2000-2004 and 2007-2008, excluding the 2005 and 2009 anomalies, and the injury-shortened 2006 campaign. That's likely to be his result again in 2010.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• Can Chad Billingsley return to last season's first-half form
• How long can Derek Jeter defy the effects of aging?
• Who will be the brightest offensive star in the O's universe?
• What's next for Ryan Zimmerman?
• Can Pablo Sandoval improve on his impressive 2009?
• Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?
- Derrek Lee