CHICAGO – He is just a commodity.
Carlos Lee, a farmer at heart and one of the best sluggers in baseball with the Milwaukee Brewers, reminds himself of this every day. He's got 8,000 head of cattle on his farm in Aguadulce, Panama, and when the sun sets, even the best milk producers are subject to the realities of business.
"They're all for sale," Lee said.
How fitting. Lee might be for sale, to the team with the most to offer via trade, if the Brewers fall out of wild-card contention. And he will be for sale, to the team with the most money and opportunity, if he opts to become a free agent this offseason.
"Hey, Doug," Lee yelled.
Doug Melvin, the Brewers' general manager, sat in the dugout. It took two more calls of Lee's baritone to catch Melvin's attention.
"Am I for sale?" Lee asked.
Quickly, Melvin said: "You got a for-sale sign on you?"
Answering a question with a question is a Sammy Davis Jr.-style sidestep. With two of baseball’s biggest issues intersecting at Lee – exorbitant free-agent spending and small market teams' inability to keep up – it also is a prudent answer.
Lee could be the most sought-after free-agent hitter not named Alfonso Soriano this offseason, and with the game's influx of money and an available class about as appealing as Paris Hilton's single on loop, Lee, already a rich man, will become grotesquely wealthy.
Whether he does so in Milwaukee, which acquired him in a shrewd trade with the Chicago White Sox two years ago, is the other matter. Even with new owner Mark Attanasio increasing the Brewers' payroll to $57.6 million this season, Milwaukee still ranks 25th in revenue, according to Forbes, decreasing the likelihood of salary spikes. Which, in turn, means if the Brewers give Lee a deal averaging, say, $12 million – and on the free market, it might end up closer to $14 million – they would be devoting more than 20 percent of their money to one player. And that's before Chris Capuano, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks reach arbitration.
"You've got to have an alternative plan," Melvin said. "When you lose players, you're not guaranteed you can go out and sign others. There's a perception out there if you don't sign somebody or trade someone, you can just get another player because money is freed up. That isn't always the case."
Naturally, Lee is deepening a complicated situation by approaching his career high in home runs – and the All-Star Game still is almost two weeks away. His 25 home runs rank second in baseball behind Albert Pujols and are seven shy of his single-season best, set last year, and his 63 RBIs tie Jim Thome for eighth overall.
"You can't worry about stats, results, what's going to happen down the road," Lee said. "You'll kill yourself if you do that. I can control what I do in the batter's box, in left field and on the basepaths. Everything aside from that? Hey, whatever."
Confidence breeds that kind of nonchalance, and Lee can afford it with a quick scan of his fellow free agents-to-be. Soriano, because of his power-speed combination and name recognition, will probably command the biggest deal along with Barry Zito. Lee, who turned 30 last week, is actually six months younger than Soriano and a few years younger than the rest of the top available hitters: Nomar Garciaparra (33 next month) and Cliff Floyd (33), and those whose team options could be declined, Gary Sheffield (37) and Torii Hunter (31).
All of this analysis for a diversion.
To Lee, that's baseball. His job is in Aguadulce, where his father, Carlos, runs the farm in his stead. When Lee first came to the major leagues with the White Sox in 1999, he invested in property.
"I prefer being down there," he said. "For me, this is a hobby. Down there, it's a job. That's work. I'm up at 7 o'clock in the morning, don't get back home until 5 or 6. I come here and do what I like to do."
Few do it as consistently as Lee. Since 2000, he is one of seven players to hit at least 24 home runs, score 75 runs and drive in 80 runs each season. The other six: Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds.
"Carlos knows how to put the ball in play," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "He's smart. He's intuitive. He's got a good idea what the pitcher needs to do to get him out. He sees the ball. He has great hand-eye coordination. He's very strong."
Sounds more like a blockbuster movie blurb than a scouting report.
"I'd love to have him here," Yost said. "He's a big part of what we do. But there are certain parts of this game that come into effect."
Low-revenue teams deal with it every year. Milwaukee traded Richie Sexson before he walked and landed Capuano and Lyle Overbay, who they spun for pitchers Dave Bush and Zach Jackson. Voila. Three-fifths of the starting rotation from one star dealt.
It's why Melvin compares reliable middle-of-the-order hitters with No. 1 and 2 starters. There aren't that many, they all command huge money on the free-agent market and, if traded, they'd better bring lots in return. Which is why Melvin simultaneously trolls the market while negotiating with Lee's agent, Adam Katz, to see if an agreement is in the offing.
"With the wild card being out there and our division looking like no one's going to run away with it, I anticipate us being in the race," Melvin said. "And for us to remain in there, Carlos would have to be a part of it."
For his part, Lee keeps hitting. He went 2 for 4 on Wednesday and raised his batting average to .276. Though the Brewers lost to drop below .500, they're still a five-game winning streak away from leading the division, which Lee notes with standard indifference: "I don't worry about a thing."
He shouldn't. Commodities aren't afforded feelings. And until he signs a contract, Carlos Lee knows in the baseball world's eyes he is just that.