Amidst mounting frustration during the Astros loss on Sunday to the Padres, I tweeted the following "[a]t this point, I'd rather the Astros just release Carlos Lee." Lee had just lolligagged his way to a fly ball and tension boiled over. Did I really mean that I wanted the Astros to swallow tens of millions of dollars? No. Am I now curious about what that would actually look like through a logical and objective lens? Yes.
So let's do just that.
Lee is currently sitting at -1.0 WAR. Yes, that is correct. He of the $19 million salary this season has actually cost the Astros a win versus if they were playing some quad-A scrub. Is some of this attributable to bad luck at the plate? Yes. Is a larger portion of it attributable to Lee's appalling fielding abilities? Most definitely. Lee's three year average according to DRS is -4 and for UZR/150 it is -8.3.
The defensive aspect of Lee's drain on the Astros ability to win major league baseball games is not a very hard case to make. Even if UZR's park adjustment are punishing Lee unfairly, it is safe to say that he is about a half win drain on the Astros team. Heretofore, Carlos has been able to offset his paltry defense with around twenty runs above average with his bat. Even with that contribution though, Lee has been unable provide enough performance to justify his contract.
Lee has still been providing value, though, which at least justifies his spot on the field. But Lee is below replacement level right now. That means that we could get better performance from someone like Jason Bourgeois, someone who is freely available and comes at a league minimum cost. Or even Jason Michaels, who is actually playing above replacement level baseball.
This skin deep analysis isn't getting us to the question I am trying to answer, though. As I stated at the outset, a large portion of Lee's failings to be an above replacement level player are the result of misfortune. Perhaps David Coleman is the root cause of it. I don't know. I don't want to point fingers. Either way, we do know that Lee's numbers indicate that he should perform better. The law of averages inclines us to believe that the Carlos Lee will perform somewhere around his career norms. We could even include a discount for aging and he still performs above replacement level. Lee's ZIPs Rest of the Season update sees him as being five weighted runs above average, which is much better than his ten weighted runs below average he has been performing.
This leads me to believe that the Astros should expect Carlos to start playing like an above replacement player. The question that the Astros have to answer is will Lee's resurgent bat be enough to outpace other players with lesser holes in their defense? Trade offs and opportunity costs- a conundrum.
My policy recommendation is to be realistic. For the time being, the answer to my question is a distinct maybe. There are suitable options to alleviate the drain that Lee is on the Astros win column. A long with the ability to mix and match players as needed, perhaps Lee does not need to see the top of the batting order for some time. But I do not believe the Astros, at this point, are better off without Carlos because his bat didn't suddenly lose the talent that has allowed him to be an above-average hitter, who's simply overpaid. His offensive numbers will return to a level that makes him more valuable than Bourgeois and Michaels, but he is not there right now. Would the Astros have been better off without Carlos Lee for the first eighty-two games they played? The numbers say yes. For the next eighty, though, I expect the answer to be no.
Now, once this season is done and the Astros have to ability to trade Lee for pennies on the dollar to an AL team that can use him as a DH, I say Ed Wade needs to take whatever deal he can make. And I mean it- whatever deal he can make.