Are you down with Derrek Lee? Yeah, you know me!
Or: Derrek Lee: the best Cubs first basemen of our lifetimes
Think for a minute about what the Cubs first base situation was like before Derrek Lee came along. They'd spent the previous season, the '03 season, turning to spare parts and future busts before eventually making a trade for a bad-pitch slugging sausage hitter. In 2003, the Cubs had gotten 365 at bats from the well-liked but past-his-expiration date Eric Karros (.286 AVG, .340 OBP, 16 doubles, 12 homers, .786 OPS), along with 202 at bats from the hole-in-his-swing-the-size-of-Ohio prospect Hee Seop Choi (.218 AVG, .350 OBP, 17 doubles, 8 homers, .771 OPS), and then, at last, 110 at bats from The Big Sausage Randall Simon (.282 AVG, .318 OBP, 3 doubles, 6 homers, .804 OPS). That basically equates to 36 doubles, 26 homers, and 3 roster spots.
The previous two seasons had the Cubs relying on Ass-Eatin' Fred McGriff, Matt Stairs, and Ron Coomer. I'm pretty sure that nobody here will contest that Lee was better than those jobbers. But this is where the premise of this article gets tricky.
Ending in the 2000 season, and starting way back in 1988, the Cubs had a single first baseman -- a guy who'd spend more time playing at first base than any other Cub in a century, Mark Grace.
Grace was a guy who'd lead the team in the clubhouse, and who spent the entire decade of the 90's outhitting -- and out-doubling -- every other active player in baseball. He'd be consistent, reliable, and he'd leave the Cubs with a career .308 AVG. The only problem was that he wasn't really insanely productive, which is sort of a must-have for a first baseman. He'd never, ever drive in 100 runs in a season -- although any stat geek could tell you to blame the guys batting in front of him (primarily Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg and later Sammy Sosa in his prime, but I digress). As you may recall, not too long ago I was told that the apparent best way to measure the success of a hitter is through the wRC stat, and while Grace had 90 or more 10 times in his career with the Cubs (out of 13 opportunities) he only exceeded 100-or-more 5 times (1993, 108.8, 1995 109.7, 1997 108.5, 1998 112.9, 1999 111.1).
Derrek Lee, meanwhile, is soon-to-be in his 7th season of having 100-or-more wRCs, with his best years coming in 2005 (151.8 ), 2007 (113.4), and soon-to-be this year. Lee also surely would have been able to add 2006 to his totals, but he missed a lot of time.
But looking at the more traditional numbers, Lee has a career .919 OPS as a Cub while Grace never once reached that number, not even in his best season. Lee is also a slugging first baseman who, in six seasons with the Cubs has already hit more homeruns than Grace did in his career there.
And this is all ignoring that one of Lee's six seasons was spent primarily on the DL. (F**k you very much, Raffy Furcal.) It's true, though, that next year is likely to be Lee's last with the Cubs. It will be his 7th season in Chicago, he'll turn 35 before the year is over, and it seems probable that the Cubs will look to go younger at first base. But still, it's either a testament to Lee's ability as a player or perhaps the Cubs' inability to field a competent first baseman that Derrek might be the best to wear a Cubs uniform since Ernie Banks made the switch back in the 60's.
And no matter how you look at it, Derrek Lee kicks serious ass, especially this year.