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February 11, 2004

Tony Clark, we hardly knew ye
by Larry Mahnken

Hey, remember when I said it looked like the Yankees' roster was set? Yeah, just forget I ever said that.

Aside from the search for a third baseman, it looks like the Yankees are going in another direction with their backup firstbaseman, with reports coming in that they're finalizing a one-year $2 million contract with Travis Lee.

My initial reaction to this move was negative, because my impression of Lee has been negative. He's an excellent defensive first baseman, good enough that he could be a corner outfielder, but he's been a disappointment over the course of his career.

That's what happens when you have high expectations at a young age. Lee was the first Arizona Diamondback, signing with them after a technicality allowed him to become a free agent in 1996. He showed great power in college, great power in the minors, had a good first season and then...foom! He was a mediocre player. He never developed any serious power on the major league level, and his plate discipline, which was a strength in his first couple of seasons, has regressed into mediocrity. But all this time, Lee has been an average major league hitter and an excellent glove man. He's been a perfectly average first baseman, but when you're expected to be a perrenial All-Star before you ever play a minor league game, being average first baseman looks sucky.

To be sure, Lee has had stretches in his career when he's been dreadful, and they've looked all the worse when the backups he was playing in lieu of were Erubiel Durazo and Jeremy Giambi. In a way, he's like Aaron Boone at first base. He doesn't suck, but you feel like he does.

Lee most certainly didn't suck last season, posting a career-best .807 OPS for the Devil Rays, which combined with his defense, put him firmly in the top half of Major League first basemen in terms of value (although, don't get me wrong, he's well behind the pack of superstar first basemen). Maybe it was just a fluke of random variation, but Lee was also only 28 last season, and a late peak is not entirely out of the question. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system shows that Lee is as likely as not to repeat last season's performance, when his EqA was .281.

But the Yankees aren't bringing him in to start, at least not for now. Lee is being brought in as insurance for Jason Giambi, allowing the Yankees to give their star slugger a break by DHing him, without taking as big a hit offensively as they probably would have with Tony Clark.

After some thought, I like this signing, though I worry that it might inspire Joe Torre to keep Bernie Williams in center field, DH Giambi every day, and make Lee the regular first baseman. MGL over at Baseball Primer ran a quick simulation to compare 1B Giambi/DH Williams/CF Lofton and 1B Lee/DH Giambi/CF Williams and concluded that the second lineup would cost the Yankees about .18 runs a game on offense and defense, or about 3 wins a year--3 wins that might make a big difference.

If Torre does decide to make Giambi the everyday DH, rather than sticking Bernie out in center, he should give the job to Lofton from the start of Spring Training, and use the time in Florida to acclamate Bernie to playing LF, where his defense won't be as damaging to the Yankees. Then the Yankees can play Lee at first every day, and when you want to DH Bernie, you can move Giambi to first, and Lee or Matsui out to left. That, of course, involves benching Matsui, something unlikely to happen (he's a cash cow for the Yankees), but it's imperative that Williams be kept out of center field.

If everything works out ideally for the Yankees, and they can play Giambi in the field often, then the signing of Lee gives them a good lefty bat off the bench, which isn't worth $2 million, but is a good thing to have. And then there's the possibility that Lee could play third base, which he's never done, but his athletic talent suggests he might be able to pull off. Giving him a look there in March couldn't hurt.