Astros: Revisiting the Carlos Lee signing in 2006

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 2: Drew Sutton
PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 2: Drew Sutton /

Eleven years ago on November 24th, 2006, the Astros signed one of the notable sluggers on the free agent market to shore up a struggling lineup.

Carlos Lee was one of the top sluggers on the free agent market this time eleven years ago. The Astros happened to have a need for such a slugger as the team’s offense struggled to a 90 wRC+ and last place in batting average – .255- during the 2006 season.

Yes, the 2006 Astros’ offense wasn’t good. Shocker of the day. If you couldn’t tell, that was my lackluster attempt at sarcasm.

The Astros thought that a hitter like Lee would provide protection for Lance Berkman batting clean up in a struggling offense. It made sense to a certain degree. Lee could hit home runs and post a decent batting average. That alone probably sold the Astros, who were obviously not as analytically inclined as they are today in 2017.

No offense to the previous ownership or the Tim Purpura front office, but the Astros were not known for their analytic prowess.

In a more analytic bent, Lee posted nearly two wins per season since 2000 if you follow Fangraphs’ WAR model. He consistently posted an above-average wRC+. In general, his offensive metrics were respectable. Lee also didn’t strike out a lot and drew some walks. There was value in signing Lee. But the contract, despite some value in the first two seasons, did not age well.

If you don’t recall, Lee signed a six-year, $100 million contract on this very day eleven years ago. This included a full no-trade clause for the first four seasons followed by a partial no-trade clause for the last two. The contract was also backloaded as Lee agreed to less annual salary the first two seasons than the last four. For example, Lee was paid $11.5 million in his first season as an Astro. Fast forward to the last year of his contract and he was earning $19 million in a single season.

At the time when I was a baseball-naive fan at 17-years old, I thought it was a great deal for Houston. The shining home runs and batting average caught my attention first-and-foremost. Plus, I desired that the Astros to target Lee in the trade deadline during the 2006 season. It disappointed me that the Rangers struck first to make a deal with Milwaukee for Lee at the deadline. Picturing Lee in the same lineup as Berkman and Morgan Ensberg was euphoric to a teenage baseball fan. Alas, this euphoric feeling I had in the following offseason would eventually be replaced by apathy six years later.

The Lee contract wasn’t the total disaster that its later reputation would lead you to believe.

Fangraphs publishes a useful metric that convert wins above replacement, aka WAR, into how much monetary value a player provided based on how much a win cost. Lee in his first two seasons as an Astro posted values of $14.6 and $19.9 million based on his 2.6 and 3.2 WAR. Lee only made $11.5 and $12.5 million in his first two seasons as an Astro. The first two seasons of the contract were good from Houston’s perspective in terms of the value Lee provided. However, Lee would provided only additional season of value higher than his salary in a season (2011).

In short, Lee did not age well for the Astros. For example, his offensive metrics would decline sharply in the latter half of his contract. This includes power and contact. If anything positive happened, Lee drew more walks than he historically did in prior seasons. Lee’s defensive metrics also declined at such an alarming rate that Houston was forced to move him to first base following Berkman’s departure from the franchise. One could even argue that the Astros should’ve foreseen Lee’s defensive decline as he posted an -16 DRS and -17.7 UZR in 2011 as a left fielder. Ironically, Lee posted a positive DRS and UZR in 645.1 innings as a left fielder the following season.

Next: How the ABC'S compare to the Killer B's

The Lee contract hamstrung the Astros budget in the later years as the team toiled in a steady decline. Once current general manager Jeff Luhnow took over the team, he was able to trade Lee to the Marlins in the last season of his deal. By that point Lee was already a shell of the player he once was. Overall, he provided value to the Astros. It just wasn’t the kind of value Houston was anticipating when Lee signed eleven years ago. Now, don’t get me started about the Woody Williams contract that same offseason.

**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs**