Derrek Lee has surgery on his right thumb

Free agent first baseman Derrek Lee(notes) has had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury that appeared to limit his production for much of the 2010 season.

Lee, who turned 35 in September, is expected to recover well in advance of spring training.

Performed Friday at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles by hand specialist Dr. Steven Shin, the surgery repaired damage sustained by Lee on April 5, opening day for the Chicago Cubs.

Ninth in the National League MVP voting in 2009 when he batted .306 with 35 home runs and 111 RBIs, Lee’s numbers fell to .260, 19 homers and 80 RBIs. In spite of the injury, he played in 148 games for the Cubs and Atlanta Braves and helped drive the Braves to their first postseason appearance in five years.

Doctors told him he would wear a cast to his mid-forearm for six weeks, then need four weeks of rehabilitation. The cast could come off sooner, speeding his recovery.

Either way, he enters the first true free agency of his career after a down year and recovering from surgery.

“I don’t think it’s the ideal situation,” Lee said. “It’s not how you draw it up in your free-agent year. But, my body of work, people know what I can do. Obviously, there’ll be some concern because my numbers were way down. But, overall, teams know what I can do and know I can get myself back. I think it’s a character thing, too.”

A healthy Lee joins Paul Konerko(notes) and Adam Dunn(notes) atop a group of free-agent first basemen that also includes Lance Berkman(notes), Carlos Pena, Aubrey Huff(notes), Adam LaRoche(notes) and Lyle Overbay(notes).

He said he assumes interest in him will come later in the offseason after teams review the medical reports and see how he responds from surgery.

“I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “We haven’t come up with a game plan yet for what we’re looking for. It’s early and we’ll wait and see. But, at this stage in my career I want to be on a team that has a chance. I want to have a shot at getting back to the playoffs.”

Lee declined to use the injury as an explanation for the drop-off, though he had to adjust his grip on the bat and endured daily swelling around his thumb.

“I’m not pinning my numbers on my injury,” he said. “Every player has them and it’s something you play through.”

That said, he added, “It’s good news that next year I won’t have to play injured. I can go play healthy. And it’s nice to know what was going on was fixable.”

Lee was diagnosed by the Cubs to have strained the ligament and received an early-season Cortisone injection. When they acquired Lee in mid-August, the Braves examined Lee and determined he likely would require off-season surgery. They initiated more aggressive treatment, which included another injection into the damaged area.

Lee was more productive in Atlanta, and was very good in season’s final weeks. After Aug. 29, when the Braves were losing nine games in the NL East to the Philadelphia Phillies – from three games up to six down – Lee had a .330 average, 19 RBIs and a .954 OPS. While coping with the injury, he had batted just .205 in April and .233 in the season’s first half.