After nearly being traded to the Dodgers last week, only to have the deal fall through when he dragged his feet, Carlos Lee is finally on the move. On Sunday, the 36-year-old former slugger was dealt to the Marlins for a pair of prospects. The move shakes up the 39-42 Marlins' lineup, if nothing else, but it's a pricey one that isn't likely to help them climb back into the NL Wild Card hunt.
Once upon a time, Lee was a big bopper. From 1999-2009, he mashed 307 homers while batting .291/.344/.503 for the White Sox (1999-2004), Brewers (2005-2006), Rangers (2006) and Astros (2007 onward). Given that he put up those numbers in hitter-friendly parks while playing subpar defense in leftfield, that was somewhat useful — somebody had to drive in 100 runs a year in those lineups — but not tremendously valuable. He averaged 2.2 WARP per season over that 11-year stretch, with a high of 4.8 for the 2004 White Sox representing a peak that he has never otherwise come close to matching. When the Astros signed Lee to a six-year, $100 million contract in November 2006, the deal was viewed as a massive overpayment.
It's been that, particularly as Lee has put on weight (he's now listed at 270 pounds), shifted to first base and evolved from a power hitter into a singles hitter. Since posting a fairly typical line in 2009 (.300/.343/.489), he has hit a combined .265/.320/.427, including a more contact-friendly .287/.336/.411 this year, with five homers, 19 walks and 17 strikeouts in 277 plate appearances. In hitter-friendly Houston, that's a .258 True Average (runs per plate appearance, expressed on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring rates) — two points below the league average and 16 points below the major league average for first basemen. All told, that's a sub-replacement level performance worth −0.9 WARP, and if that sounds like an exaggeration for how much of a drag he's been, a peek at Lee's splits should eliminate that notion; while he's hit .286/.362/.459 with five homers in 149 plate appearances at home, he's at .288/305/.360 without a homer in 128 PA on the road. Small sample caveats apply, but the downward trend is clear; from 2009-2011, he hit .284/.342/.484 at home, .264/.308/.418 on the road.
The sad fact is that the Marlins haven't been getting much from their first basemen, either. Gaby Sanchez has been so disappointing that he's now headed for his second minor league stint of the season, having hit just .202/.250/.306. Neither the disappointing Logan Morrison (.242/.317/.433) nor the underpowered Greg Dobbs (.290/.321/.355) have provided much help; in all, Fish first-sackers have been collectively worth −0.5 WARP, hitting .211/.267/.318 with six homers in 326 PA, a performance even worse than the jilted Dodgers (..247/.306/.340).
Those struggles are just one reason why the Marlins find themselves three games below .500, nine games out of first place in the NL East and tied for sixth in the Wild Card race, five behind the Giants and Reds. After stumbling out of the gate in April (8-14), Miami posted the majors' best record in May (21-8), only to slip back underwater in June (8-18). At their peak, the Marlins showed an unsustainable knack for winning the close games, going 18-11 in one- and two-run games through the end of that month. They're now 23-20 overall in such games. Closer Heath Bell, one of their big free agent acquisitions, is again on shaky ground, and manager Ozzie Guillen is back to his expletive-laced tirades.
All told, both the Marlins' offense and pitching have been subpar. Their 3.96 runs per game ranks 12th in the league, with none of their slash stats (.243/.311/.393) above average. Their spacious new ballpark actually isn't to blame; Miami and its opponents have scored an average of 4.56 runs per game there, compared to 4.05 on the road. Alas, most of those on both sides of the ledger have been the other guys, as the Marlins' 4.69 runs per game allowed rank 14th in the NL. Putting the DH-ready Lee in the field won't help that.
At least he's basically free, as the Astros are picking up all of Lee's remaining $18.5 million salary save for the pro-rated minimum — roughly $9 million, all told. For doing so, they get back two players, third baseman Matt Dominguez and lefty pitcher Rob Rasmussen, who don't exactly light up prospect lists. The 22-year-old Dominguez was the Marlins' first-round pick in the 2007 draft. Baseball America ranked him 64th on their Top 100 Prospects list after he hit .296/.354/.499 as an 18-year-old in the South Atlantic League, a full-season A-ball circuit. But while he is still considered an outstanding fielder at the hot corner, his bat has stalled in the high minors; in 1,377 PA at Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans, he has hit just .242/.314/.392, and he's no longer Top 100 material. Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein offered a sobering projection of his trajectory: "Now in his sixth year in the minors with little reason to think he's going to become enough of a hitter to play every day for a first-division team, his best hope might be for a career in the mold of Pedro Feliz." Ouch.
It sounds as though Dominguez will get a look with the big league club, where incumbent Chris Johnson is hitting a Lee-like .278/.322/.411. Perhaps more importantly, the trade of Lee opens up first base for thrice-traded former first-round pick Brett Wallace, a 25-year-old with a career .254/.330/.370 line in 580 PA for the Astros, but a somewhat more robust .303/.365/.490 in 1,265 PA in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. As for Rasmussen, he's a 2010 second-round pick out of UCLA — on the same staff Gerritt Cole and Trevor Bauer, the first and third picks, respectively, of the 2011 draft — who stands a less-than-imposing 5-foot-9. A starter in college and the minors, he's a pitcher whom scouts see as likely to wind up in a bullpen role if he reaches the majors. He offers a low-90s fastball and an above-average slider, but the rest of his arsenal is fringy, as is his command; currently, he's walking 3.7 and striking out 7.7 per nine at High-A Jupiter en route to a 3.90 ERA. All told, the Astros probably would have been better off had they been able to complete the deal with the Dodgers, as righty starter Garrett Gould, a higher-ceiling prospect, was said to be the return. By subtracting Lee, who's clearly not part of their future, and creating space for players who might be, they still come out ahead. As for the Marlins, while it's possible that Lee benefits from a change of scenery, the reality is that even if he does this won't save their season.