Carlos Lee’s play in Houston justified the $100 million contract the Astros gave him.
The 2006 Houston Astros narrowly missed the postseason, and their offense needed some serious help. Heading into the offseason, GM Tim Purpura set his sights on free agent left fielder Carlos Lee, and the fit was almost too perfect. He played a position the team needed, provided the middle-of-the-order bat they wanted, and even had a ranch near Houston.
It finally happened on Nov. 24, 2006, when the Astros gave Lee a six-year contract worth $100 million, which was and still remains the largest free agent contract the club has ever given to a player. He was 30 years old and not a strong defender, which made the deal somewhat risky, but it was a move the team almost had to make.
Some of the other moves made that offseason didn’t work out at all. We already reviewed the trade for Jason Jennings, who simply stunk with the Astros. The signing of 40-year-old Woody Williams didn’t pan out either, as he pitched to a 5.27 ERA and 8-15 record.
Lee gave the club exactly what they were expecting, at least for the first half of the deal. He lived up to his reputation as a durable player by playing in all 162 games in 2007, hitting .303/.354/.528 with 43 doubles, 32 homers and career-best 119 RBIs.
He was in the midst of the best season of his career in 2008 when he was hit by a pitch in early August, resulting in a broken finger and the loss of the remainder of his season. In 115 games, Lee hit .314/.368/.569 with 27 doubles, 28 homers and 100 RBIs. His .937 OPS was the best of his career, and he could easily have set a new career high in RBIs if he hadn’t been hurt.
Lee returned with a .300/.343/.489 line, 35 doubles, 26 homers and 102 RBIs in 2009, playing in 160 games. But the Astros were not in playoff contention, and they would remain that way through the rest of his tenure.
So when Lee’s numbers took a dive in 2010, falling to just a .246/.291/.417 line with 29 doubles, 24 homers and 89 RBIs, it didn’t really matter. The team’s window had closed and cornerstones Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt were traded away. Lee rebounded in 2011 with a .275/.342/.446 line with 38 doubles and 94 RBIs, though his power output dropped to just 18 homers.
In his final season of 2012, Lee hit .287/.336/.411 in 66 games, though he hit only five homers. He was traded to the Marlins in early July for Matt Dominguez and Rob Rasmussen. He retired after the season with career totals of 2,273 hits, 469 doubles, 358 homers and 1,363 RBIs. He compiled 8.8 WAR in his time with the Astros, a figure that was dragged down by his defense.
Despite only playing five and a half seasons in Houston, Lee is 14th in club history in doubles, 11th in homers, RBIs and OPS, and ninth in batting average and slugging. That doesn’t necessarily mean he should have his number retired, but it can’t reasonably be argued that he wasn’t among the better hitters the franchise has seen.
Was it Really Justified?
In short, yes. In the five full seasons he played in Houston, Lee had a significantly above-average OPS+ in four of those, with his down 2010 being the only exception. In fact, his OPS+ marks in those four seasons were all better than his career average, and he also provided 2.4 or more offensive WAR in each of those same four seasons. The defensive marks were not particularly kind to him, but the Astros didn’t sign him for his defense.
What they signed him for was to be the legitimate cleanup hitter they lacked in 2006. Perhaps stubbornly, the team was trying to win even though their minor league system was providing very little in the way of cheap, young talent. They needed him to provide lineup protection for Berkman and drive in runs, and he did that quite well while the team was still trying to win.
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By the time Lee declined in the back end of the contract, the Astros’ window of contention had firmly closed. Miguel Tejada left via free agency after the 2009 season, and Berkman’s production also dropped off a cliff in 2010. Increased production from Lee in 2010 wouldn’t have made much difference.
When you go shopping in free agency to sign a top-end talent like Lee, signing him to a long-term deal is just part of it. Like it or not, you’re willingly taking on the likely risk that you overpay him in the back end of the deal. If he produces as expected in the first few years, it’s probably worth it. It’s not the most cost-effective or efficient way of building a team, which is why drafting and developing players is better. But given the Astros’ situation at the time, this was the best they could do.
In this case, Lee produced quite well in the first half of the contract. Not only that, but he became a fan favorite, including having his own fan club “Los Caballitos.” We’ve seen plenty of scenarios where a new acquisition just doesn’t gel in his new city and never justifies the deal or wins over the fans, but El Caballo never had that problem.
The only regret I’d have is that the Astros never made the playoffs during his time in Houston. The 2008 season was the best chance, but the team missed the playoffs largely thanks to Hurricane Ike and Commissioner Bud Selig’s handling of the situation. Playing “home” games against the Cubs in Selig’s hometown of Milwaukee was about as big a slap in the face as the notorious Houston-hater could dish out. Still, one has to wonder if the outcome would’ve been different with Lee in the lineup down the stretch instead of on the disabled list.
When the Astros were fighting to make the playoffs in the first half of the deal, he gave them exactly what they’d hoped for. By the time he declined, it really didn’t matter since the team wasn’t going to win anyway. So in that sense, giving Lee $100 million wasn’t a bad way to spend that money.