Derrek Lee of the Chicago Cubs against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
This is an update to the Derrek Lee profile in the Top 100 Cubs series that was posted on December 8, 2006. Lee was 73rd in the original ranking, done after the 2006 season; his seasons since then, even with some of the time he lost to injury, have moved him up to 58th. (In career WAR as a Cub, D-Lee ranks 56th.) Most of this is the original post; the additional material is at the end of the post, with a bit of editing throughout to bring dates, etc. up to date. This is the third of four active player profile updates; Kerry Wood was updated on January 23, Carlos Zambrano on January 24, and Aramis Ramirez on January 25. In addition, the profile of Greg Maddux, who played two more years after 2006, will also be updated before spring training begins. The original comments are still here; you can add to them now.
Among the most popular Cubs in his nearly seven years with the team, Derrek Lee is both the son and the nephew of former ballplayers, and the father and uncle are often confused because only one letter differentiates their names, and both had long and successful careers playing baseball in Japan.
Leron Lee, Derrek's uncle, played eight major league seasons with the Cardinals, Padres, Indians and Dodgers as a part-time outfielder; his best year was 1972, when he hit 12 HR in 370 AB with a triple-slash line of .300/.353/.497.
Leon Lee, Derrek's dad, never played in the major leagues; after a brief minor league career he wound up playing for the Lotte Orions, Yakult Swallows and Taiyo Whales for ten seasons. As of 2007, he ranked tenth all-time in Japanese ball in batting average for anyone with more than 4000 AB there; Leron was the all-time leader at that time.
Leon eventually became a manager for the Orix Blue Wave and a Pacific Rim scout for the Cubs, and that, indirectly, is how his son Derrek, who was born in Leon's hometown of Sacramento on September 6, 1975, became a member of the Cubs -- because it was at Leon Lee's recommendation that the Cubs signed Korean prospect Hee Seop Choi, who was eventually dealt to the Florida Marlins on November 25, 2003, in exchange for Derrek. In many ways, Leon Lee's life is quite a bit more interesting than Derrek's, given the world travels he has made, and sadly, his arrest for allegedly exposing himself to some women at a hotel in Florida during spring training in 2004, essentially ending his career in baseball.
However, since this profile isn't about Leon Lee, but his son, let us continue. Derrek Lee played high school ball in Sacramento and in 1993 became the San Diego Padres' first-round draft pick (chosen fourteenth overall in that draft). It would take him a couple of years before he developed the power stroke that he now shows off at the major league level -- his first big minor league year was 1995, where he hit 23 HR for Rancho Cucamonga in the California League; his 34 HR, 104 RBI season for Memphis the following year at age 20 put him on the fast track to the majors.
In his 1997 debut for the Padres, he struggled, striking out 24 times in 54 at-bats and hitting only one home run. And then, for the first of two times in his career, he was traded as part of a salary dump -- when the Marlins were dismantling their 1997 World Championship team, they sent Kevin Brown to the Padres for Lee. He struggled again, showing some power (17 HR in 1998), and when he got off to a slow start in 1999, wound up spending half that year in Triple-A.
The repeat minor league experience clearly helped. At age 24 in 2000, Lee jetted to the next level of performance, putting up a fine .281/.368/.507 season with 28 HR and 70 RBI; he repeated a similar year in 2001 and then increased his power production to 27 HR in 2002 and 31 in 2003.
The rest of the 2003 Marlins season with Derrek Lee and others is perhaps best not recollected here.
Lee continued his consistent performance with a 32 HR, 98 RBI season in his first year with the Cubs in 2004, and then in 2005 established himself as one of the premier hitters in the National League with a MVP-caliber season, hitting 46 HR (though driving in only 107 runs, tied with Jose Canseco for the third-lowest total with 46 or more HR in a season -- only Barry Bonds, 49/106 in 2000, Troy Glaus, 47/102 in 2000, and Adam Dunn, 46/102 in 2004, had fewer -- for reasons that are well-known to Cub fans), winning the batting title with a .335 average, and falling only one hit short of a 200-hit season, and one extra-base hit short of a 100-XBH season, two significant milestones.
Lee's 2005 season is one of the greatest offensive seasons in Cubs history (Ernie Banks, 1958 and 1959; Sammy Sosa, 1998 and 2001, Hack Wilson, 1930, and Rogers Hornsby, 1929, are the only ones I'd consider to be in this ballpark or better).
Derrek parlayed this great season into a five-year contract, worth an estimated $65 million, and was off to a good start in 2006 when he was involved in a gruesome collision at first base in Dodger Stadium with, ironically, someone the Cubs very much wanted to sign to play with them, Rafael Furcal. Lee's wrist was broken and he played in only fifty games. To make his lost season even worse, toward the end of the season his three-year-old daughter Jada was diagnosed with Leber's congenital amaurosis, a rare eye disease. D-Lee established Project 3000, a foundation dedicated to finding a cure for this disease, and even after it was determined that Jada had been misdiagnosed and did not have the disease, Lee continued to support the effort.
Lee came back from his injury in 2007 not quite the same hitter he had been before. It was clear to most who watched him that the wrist had not totally healed; in addition, he began to suffer neck and back problems that, while not bad enough to put him on the DL, kept him out of action from time to time and also made his numbers suffer. Even so, he put up a .913 OPS in 2007, with 22 HR and 82 RBI, and a similar season in 2008, although his OPS dropped to .823. He made the All-Star team for the second time in his career in '08, and was just about the only Cub to contribute in the three-game sweep in the division series by the Dodgers; he went 6-for-11 in those three games (.545) with three doubles in the loss.
In 2009, Lee got off to a slow start, and missed some time with the neck and back trouble. On May 16 he was hitting .198 with three HR in 101 AB. Then he caught fire; the next day he went 4-for-5 with a HR and for the remainder of the year he hit .332/.420/.636 with 32 HR and 95 RBI; his season total of 111 RBI established a career high and he led the NL in most offensive categories after the All-Star break.
He got off to a similar slow start in 2010, and this time, redemption was not at hand -- literally. We learned after the season that D-Lee had suffered a torn thumb ligament on Opening Day, but he tried to play through it. He struggled all season, and with the Cubs out of the race, Jim Hendry tried to trade him to the Angels. Lee invoked his 10-and-5 rights and refused, but a month later, after he had a two-homer game in St. Louis, the contending Braves called, and Lee agreed to go, since it was clear his time with the Cubs was ending. With Atlanta, he hit .287/.384/.465 in 129 AB, hinting that he might still have something left in the tank; he signed a one-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles for 2011.
Lee always exhibited class on and off the field and his nearly seven years in a Cub uniform were productive. I wish him well in the future.