More than seven years after he declined an opportunity to join the club, veteran Derrek Lee verbally agreed today to a one-year deal to fill the Orioles' first base vacancy, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
The deal, which caps weeks of negotiations with various free agent first basemen, is expected to be worth around $8 million.
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail declined to comment as team officials traditionally do not acknowledge deals until the physicals are complete and the deal is official. Lee's physical will likely be held next week after the Orioles' front office reopens following the holidays.
Lee, a 35-year-old veteran of 14 big league seasons, batted .260 with 19 homers and 80 RBIs in 148 combined games for the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves in 2010. However, he played all season with a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury that he sustained on Opening Day and is believed to have contributed to his decline in power numbers. Lee had surgery on the thumb in early November and Orioles officials expect him to be ready by spring training.
"I think it's a great move," said starter Jeremy Guthrie when informed that the Orioles agreed to terms with Lee. "Derrek has been an All-Star and plays Gold-Glove caliber defense. I think his career numbers speak for itself with his ability to hit for power and drive in runs. I think he's going to be a great addition and a great fit for our lineup."
The deal would complete the Orioles' offseason infield overhaul, and add another potential power bat to a lineup badly in need of some pop.
"You know what he's capable of doing," said Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis. "You look at what he's done in his career and you know he's going to help us tremendously. And he's a good defensive first baseman, too. He'll be good for us. He's not just going to protect me. He's going to protect a lot of the guys in the lineup. With him being right-handed and us having a lot of left-handed hitters, he's a perfect fit."
While Lee's power numbers dropped significantly in 2010, he is a two-time All-Star and he's just one season removed from batting .306 with 35 homers and 111 RBIs in 141 games for the Cubs, and finishing in the top 10 in National League Most Valuable Player voting.
He also has 312 career home runs and has belted 25 or more homers six different seasons. Meanwhile, Orioles first basemen batted just .226 with 11 homers, 59 RBIs, a .289 on-base percentage and a .336 slugging percentage in 2010, contributing to a lineup that struggled for much of 2010.
However, at the winter meetings in early December, MacPhail traded for slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds, who has averaged 35 homers and 95 RBIs over the past three seasons, and acquired shortstop J.J. Hardy and utility man Brendan Harris. Hardy, a significant offensive upgrade over Cesar Izturis who was re-signed to serve in a utility role, totaled 50 homers and 154 RBIs during the 2007 and 2008 seasons, but has struggled with injuries the past two years.
Lee also brings a reputation as a strong defender — he's garnered three Gold Glove awards — and a clubhouse leader. MacPhail is obviously aware of both these traits as he was the president of the Cubs for part of Lee's tenure with Chicago, which ended when Lee was traded to the Braves for three minor leaguers in August to aid their playoff push. Lee hit .287 with three homers and 24 RBIs in 39 regular-season games for Atlanta, and then went 2-for-16 (.125) in four playoff games as the Braves were eliminated by the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants in the National League division series.
Despite MacPhail's familiarity with Lee and the Orioles' need for a productive first baseman, a reunion between the two appeared unlikely when the offseason began. The Orioles' top target for the position was free agent Victor Martinez, who eschewed their four-year, $48 million offer to sign a four-year, $50 pact with the Detroit Tigers.
The Orioles then turned their attention to slugging first baseman Adam Dunn, but he opted for a much more lucrative deal and a spot with the Chicago White Sox. That prompted the Orioles to consider free agents Paul Konerko and Carlos Pena, and they both signed elsewhere without getting an offer from the Orioles.
That forced the Orioles into serious negotiations with Adam LaRoche and a deal appeared to be imminent as of early last week. However, talks stalled because of LaRoche's insistence on a three-year deal and that led the Orioles to start bidding on Lee, who is represented by Casey Close.
Meanwhile, the Orioles weren't immediately high on Lee's wish list as the veteran reportedly wanted to play for a team close to his California home. He also had turned down the Orioles once before.
After the 2003 season, his final one with the Florida Marlins, Lee was at the B&O warehouse at Camden Yards trying to work out a contract extension with the Orioles that would complete a sign-and-trade deal between the Marlins and Orioles. However, the deal died when Lee decided, while he was at the warehouse, that he didn't want to sign an extension with the Orioles.
Later that offseason, he was traded by the Marlins to the Cubs, and he signed an extension to stay in Chicago.
This time, Lee was just looking for a one-year deal that will allow him to improve his value in anticipation of becoming a free agent again next offseason. The Orioles, after a multi-week quest to find a first baseman, were happy to oblige.