How much longer will leftfielder Carlos Lee wear a Milwaukee uniform. That is a question that is occupying Brewers fans at Miller Park these days. Weekend columnist Dave Begel thinks that keeping Lee at any price will keep the Brewers winning, but OMC senior editor Drew Olson thinks that the team can prosper without "El Caballo."
Point: Brewers must commit to Lee, winning
By Dave Begel
This is a test to see just how serious the Milwaukee Brewers are about giving their fans a winning team, now.
Not two years from now. Not five years from now.
Not when all the prospects mature.
If they sign Carlos Lee they are serious. If they don't, it is hard to believe they really want to win now.
Let's face it, Lee is going to command lots of money, maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million over five years. That comes out to about $12 million a year, depending on bonus money.
But, try to imagine the Brewers without Carlos Lee. He faded a little bit during the second half of last season, but this year is a maniac at the plate.
He's such a good hitter that opposing pitchers pitch around him, so the guy behind him gets better pitches. The guy behind him is Prince Fielder. Lee hits home runs. He drives in runs. He plays solid, even sometimes spectacular defense, in left field. On rare occasion he even steals a base.
Paying Lee wouldn't even have that great an impact on their overall current salary structure. Right now Lee, Geoff Jenkins and Ben Sheets account for 50 per cent of the total salary of $54 million.
Let's say Lee goes from his current $8.5 million to $12 million. Lee, Jenkins and Sheets now make $27.5 million and that would go to $31 million. In the overall picture that's a relatively modest increase of $3.5 million.
Everybody has questions about the Brewers outfield. Jenkins won't be around as an everyday player much longer. It wouldn't be surprising to see Bill Hall take over there and the Brewers will hopefully keep him. Center field is a mess with Brady Clark being pressed by Gabe Gross. The farm system has Nelson Cruz and Corey Hart begging to come up and play. But potential stars are just that, "potential stars."
It also would not be surprising if Rickie Weeks, who can't seem to handle second base and leads the league in errors, may be moved to the outfield. Imagine Weeks in the outfield and Hall as an everyday second-baseman.
With all those names around, the real proven star, is Carlos Lee.
But this is about more than statistics and even about more than money.
It's about a message.
It's a message to Carlos Lee that the Brewers are hitching their wagon to his star. He's going to be the big dog that leads all those little puppies on an exciting and thrilling ride.
It's a message to all those young players who will be free agents in several years that if you perform, the Brewers both want you and will pay you.
People talk about free agents wanting to play with winners. I suppose that's true. But what they really want is to play for real big money. When was the last time you heard a free agent in any sport turning down a much bigger salary offer to go somewhere where he thought he could win a title. Not very often.
But most of all this is a message to the millions who support the Brewers.
Sure, we loved last year. And we are still excited about this year, even though the team is struggling more than expected.
But we have decades of dreadful results to overcome. We have a long history of shipping off great players and some not so great players only to come up relatively empty-handed.
Let's start keeping our good players. That's how teams become winners. They keep great players in the lineup and then add the right pieces to become championship contenders. The real champions don't let the great ones get away.
Counterpoint: Losing Lee doesn't ensure losing
By Drew Olson
When Carlos Lee set a Brewers franchise record with 10 home runs in April, the drums started beating:
The Brewers have to sign him to an extension.
Over six seasons as a regular with the White Sox and Brewers, Lee has shown that he can be counted on for about 30 homers and 100 RBI. He's a month shy of his 30th birthday. The Brewers should sign him to a four-year deal, keep him sandwiched between Geoff Jenkins and Prince Fielder in the batting order and pick a date to start selling playoff tickets.
No brainer, right?
That's exactly what the folks in Baltimore thought when the Orioles in the winter of '98, when their Orioles signed Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million deal.
This is not to compare Carlos Lee to Mr. Freeze in any way. And, it's not to imply that Lee - a first-time free agent - does not deserve to be paid like the elite offensive player that he is.
It's simply not a slam dunk.
Based on what happened last winter and the relatively weak free agent class that will hit the market after this season, Lee will likely be in line for a deal in the ballpark of $10 million to $12 million over four or five years.
Unlike previous seasons, that price tag doesn't automatically eliminate the Brewers from the bidding. However, just because they can afford to pay Lee doesn't mean they should.
Let's assume that the Brewers take their payroll up to $60 million next season - not an unreasonable figure, considering they are at about $52 million this year with a handful of players due raises through escalators and arbitration.
If the Brewers were to keep Lee at a price of about $12 million, they could have roughly half their payroll tied up in just three players (Ben Sheets is signed for $9.6 million and Geoff Jenkins is slated to make $7 million). Given that core players like Fielder, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy are closer to the minimum salary level at this point, that's not a dire situation.
But, it's certainly not ideal.
One of the things that attracted Mark Attanasio to the club in the first place was the lack of long-term contracts on the books. Sheets' deal (four years for a franchise-record $38.5 million) looks a little more shaky now that the right-hander is injured than it did when he signed it last year, doesn't it?
Lee, whose nickname "El Caballo" is Spanish for "The Horse," has played every game since he joined the Brewers. Can he stay healthy for the duration of a long-term deal? Given his age and size - 6 foot 2 inches and roughly 250 pounds - would he be better suited to sign with an American League team that could use him as a designated hitter? What about performance? Studies have shown that players not named Barry Bonds tend to peak in their late 20s. Can the Brewers afford to sign a guy who may be injury-prone and generally on the decline in the final two years of his deal?
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who had a casual conversation with Lee's agent during a recent trip to the West Coast, has plenty to wrestle with when making this decision. But, there is one major aspect that could end up being completely beyond his control:
Carlos Lee might not want to play in Milwaukee.
Maybe he's always secretly dreamed of playing for the Yankees. Maybe he'd like to sign a big deal with Florida to be closer to his home in Panama. Maybe he has a buddy with the Red Sox and wants to play at Fenway Park. Maybe he likes what his old team, the White Sox, are doing and wants to return to the South Side of Chicago.
Major-league players serve their first six years as indentured servants of sorts. When they hit free agency, they get a chance to pick where they want to play. Lee may very well decide that he wants to move on, even if the Brewers offer more money.
Of course, debating what Lee may or may not do is not nearly as fun as arguing about what the Brewers should or should not do.
The refreshing thing about this situation is that the Brewers have a productive player who is worthy of a big contract. They may decide not to keep him, but unlike past years it won't be simply because of the money. It's not like the Brewers are going to let Lee go and cut then reduce their payroll in a cost-cutting move designed to pay down long-term debt.
The money that would have been spent on Lee can be allocated toward other areas, like pitching. During a recent visit on "The D-List" on Milwaukee's ESPN Radio, ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney said that the Brewers should let Lee go because power-hitting corner outfielders are generally pretty easy to find.
One of my favorite writers, Ray Ratto from the San Francisco Chronicle and ESPN.com, once chided the Giants for making noise about going out to find protection for Barry Bonds in the lineup and then doing what they always do -- "shopping at ReggieSanders.com." It was a great line and it was appropriate for the Brewers' situation. The team could replace Lee with an established veteran free agent or one of the two cheap, promising players already on the 40-man roster: Corey Hart and Nelson Cruz.
If either Cruz or Hart (or both) could combine to hit 25 homers and drive in 85 runs while playing for a combined $650,000, are the extra 10 homers and 30 RBI that Lee provides worth an extra $10 million?
If the Brewers determine that the young guys aren't ready yet, they could surf ReggieSanders.com and spend about $6 million on an established producer like Sanders, Jeromy Burnitz, Moises Alou (not those guys specifically, but you catch the drift).
There are other options, as well.
Let's say the Brewers trade Carlos Lee before the July 31 deadline for what they can get. Or, they let him play out the season, thank him for his service and collect the extra picks in the 2007 draft. Then, they go out and spend $12 million on a starting pitcher - perhaps one named Maddux, who wants to be on the staff with his brother as a pitching coach. Would the fans like that move?
What if the Brewers took Lee's $12 million and turn it into a $8 million starting pitcher and two $2 million relievers?
The point here is that if the Brewers don't re-sign Carlos Lee, it's not the end of the world. After finishing a game shy of the pennant in 2004, the Houston Astros let Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran fly the coup during the off-season and proceeded to make the World Series the following year.
A lot of people squawked when Doug Melvin traded Richie Sexson in the winter of 2004 and blanched when he dealt popular centerfielder Scott Podsednik the following year. Both of those deals worked out fine. In fact, it was Podsednik's exit that brought Lee to town and started this debate in the first place.
Many people will say "The Brewers need to show the fans who built Miller Park that they are committed to winning."
Like politicians, baseball general managers should never allow themselves to be influenced by public opinon polls. They need the vision to rise above popular sentiment and do what they feel is right for the organization -- popular or not. When you get right down to it, there is only one way for the Brewers to prove -- once and for all -- their committment to winning.
They can go out and win.