There is alot of talk around the web that Derrek Lee is the top guy in the sights of Mike Rizzo for first base. Of course, Adam LaRoche is still a strong possibility, but lately I’ve heard alot more about Lee than LaRoche. And no, I’m not talking about the pitcher Lee. So who is Derrek Lee and what would the Nats expect to get out of him?

Lee was one of the better first basemen of the last decade. He managed, from 2000-2009, to have a total OPS of .899, in those 10 seasons he only had three seasons with an OPS below .860, and even those were respectable. He averaged 27 HRs per year in that time, and had one injury plagued season where he only played in 50 games, his next lowest total was 140. Besides hitting well and being durable, he was considered a very good fielder. His career UZR/150 (which isn’t calculated on fangraphs before 2002, so it missed some of his younger seasons) is at 0.9, meaning just above average. And according to baseball reference, his Rtot and Rdrs numbers (both defensive value measurements) were just above average for his career as well.

But now he’s 35

The problem, of course, is that the Nats wouldn’t be signing Derrek Lee from 2000-2009, they’d be signing him for 2011. Obviously, he isn’t the hitter he was 5 years ago, but it isn’t all terrible with him.

Lee has experienced a decline with his bat, but it isn’t as pronounced as you might presume. His 2008 season was poor, when he hit .291/.361/.462, his lowest OPS since 2001. But that isn’t so poor that you wouldn’t accept a strong fielding 1B with it, especially considering alternatives. 2009 was a big recovery for him, he hit .306/.393/.579 with 35 homers. You may have thought 2008 was a total blip on the radar, but 2010 wasn’t great. He finished the season with a .774 OPS, but a decent late surge after he was trading made that looks better than it might have been had he stayed in Chicago.

His fielding, though, stands up in the last few seasons. His UZR/150, Rtot and Rdrs numbers are all higher three of the last four years (2007 being the exception) than they’ve ever been in his career. Putting the numbers aside, it is realistic to assume his range has fallen a bit, but he is very strong at receiving throws from infielders, an ability guys like Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman might find quite appealing.

Perhaps the Right Answer

The question that whoever signs him will get to figure out is what he has left as a hitter. He did not, if you’re curious, have any significant difference in facing lefties or righties in 2011, and his career numbers along those lines aren’t very pronounced. If last year was an indication of the future, he may not have the bat anymore. But that was only a half of a season, and a bit of improvement on that puts him back into the respectable category.

Keith Law listed him in his top 50 free agents this offseason, and had some nice things to say about him. He mentioned that Lee’s bat speed has declined, and it’s forced him to commit earlier. But he also pointed out that Lee hit .298/.373/.516 in the 63 games after the All Star break, and still hasn’t hit a full decline. There is a possibility of another few strong years with Lee, in my opinion. If the Nats get that, he’s more valuable than LaRoche. If they don’t, then LaRoche is probably the right choice. Simple, right?

Go ahead and vote on who you’d like to see play first base for the Nats next year.

By Charlie