The Cubs' bullpen can't hold a lead, the rotation can't stay healthy, and the offense can't manufacture runs. It's hard to imagine a more disappointing start for the Cubs, who were 16-20 through Sunday. But where would Chicago be without first baseman Derrek Lee? "Probably in last place," says a National League general manager. "[Lee] has been the best hitter in the league, and he's been carrying that team himself."
Usually a slow starter--he was a career .230 hitter in April and May entering this season--Lee has been red-hot, ranking first in the league in slugging percentage (.669) and RBIs (33) and third in homers (10) and hitting (.353). With slugger Sammy Sosa gone and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra possibly out for the season with a ruptured tendon in his left groin, Lee has emerged as a player the Cubs can build around.
"When we got him, we thought we were getting a player who was entering the peak years of his career," says Cubs G.M. Jim Hendry, who acquired the 29-year-old Lee in a trade with the Marlins in November 2003 before signing him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract four months later. "We thought he would bloom into a big offensive hitter in Chicago, playing away from [Florida's] pitcher's park."
Lee, who hit 32 homers last year, has seen his power steadily increase--his home run and RBI totals have risen in each of the last three seasons--but this year he's poised to hit .300 for the first time, in part because he's driving more balls to the opposite field.
Though Lee says he gets a thrill from seeing his name among the league leaders in several offensive categories, he concedes that it won't mean anything if he doesn't keep it up. "I think I'm capable of [putting up big numbers], but you've still got five months to go," Lee says. "One month doesn't really mean anything in the big scheme of things. You want to keep having good months and finish strong."
Lee, a basketball star at El Camino (Calif.) High who was offered a scholarship by North Carolina, has impressed the Cubs with his athleticism. He has played Gold Glove defense at first (at 6'5" Lee has such an enormous wingspan that manager Dusty Baker calls him Rodan) and has stolen a team-high eight bases.
Lee may be on his way to becoming the Cubs' most popular player, but he doesn't see himself emerging as a dominant clubhouse personality. "I'm a quiet guy," he says. "I'm not going to come in here yelling or screaming. That's not me. I just try to play the game as hard as I can, and if people want to follow that lead, great." ‚ñ†