The Trouble With Carlos

added 7/20/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Gary Sheffield admitted that he intentionally played poorly while a member of the Milwaukee Brewers in hopes he would be traded. He hit .194 with a .597 OPS in 1991 then was dealt to San Diego where he hit .330 with 100 RBIs and a .965 OPS in 1992. It's for that reason I could never support putting Sheffield in the Hall of Fame. In my mind, quitting on a team is worse than doing steroids. The steroid junkies still wanted to win and play their best - possibly too much - but they didn't cheat their teammates or the fans by not playing hard.

Derek Bell, in his final big league season, proclaimed he was in "Operation Shutdown" as he hit .173 with the lowly Pirates in 2001. Just three years earlier, he had hit a robust .314 with an .855 OPS with the Astros. In Derek's case, it was unclear whether his willpower or his skills left him sooner as he was never a good player afterwards.

The Astros are trying to diagnose the problem with their slugger Carlos Lee. In the past three seasons in Houston, Lee has averaged a .305 batting clip with 29 homers and an .878 OPS. This year, he's hitting .238 (through Monday) and would, over a full season, project to 21 homers and 82 RBIs.

Is his production down because he's slumping, unmotivated, weary of losing, lazy or a combination of the above? With Lance Berkman shelved at the beginning of the season, Lee got off to a terrible start, batting .183 with no homers and an embarrassing .453 OPS.

Could one horrible month be skewing his season projections? Only in June has Lee hit anywhere close to the pace of his previous three seasons. His output in July is a pedestrian .261 with a .705 OPS.

Could it be a lack of motivation? In Houston's wins, Lee is batting .302 with a .938 OPS. In their losses, he's batting .193 with a horrible .490 OPS. It would be natural for a cleanup hitter's totals to be worse in defeat than in victory but to this extreme?

Could it just be laziness? Fans have howled ever since he got to Houston about Lee's lack of hustle in running out ground balls or chasing down hits in the outfield. Most were willing to cut him some slack so long as he bashed 30 homers and drove in 100 runs every year but, once that vanishes, fans are no longer forgiving.

Manny Ramirez does the same thing. For years, he's played left field like he can hardly be bothered to stand out there but fans were willing to let "Manny be Manny" as long as Manny hit like an MVP.

In fairness, I've seen Lee make some good plays in left field this year. He actually seems to be a better outfielder this season than in previous years but that's damning with faint praise. He'll never be a plus outfielder and the phone booth dimensions of left field at Minute Maid Park hides some of his lack of range, as does Michael Bourn's defensive brilliance.

None of this would be of much importance if Lee did not have a guaranteed contract that pays him more annually than his new hitting coach Jeff Bagwell earned until the final balloon year of his career - and then Drayton McLane had an insurance policy that offset most of his loss.

Lee has a no-trade clause for the first four years of his contract and, when the 2011 season kicks off, Lee will have no-trade rights as a 10-and-5 player, one that has played in the majors for at least 10 seasons, with the last five for one team. Lee has a Texas ranch and has said flat out that he does not want to be traded. The only chance the Astros have to deal him is this off-season.

But who wants a .230-hitting outfielder with a $19 million-a-year pricetag? So is Carlos slyly destroying what remains of his trade value to make sure he spends the final two years of his contract as an Astro? I hate to toss out allegations without any proof but when you get the reputation of a malingerer, such accusations attract themselves.

I have a co-worker who seemed like a wonderful hire when she first came to our department. She was enthusiastic about learning her job and took initiative to streamline work for everyone. But once the job became a regular task, she began losing interest. Now, she makes sloppy mistakes and has to be pushed into getting her work done on time. She's inherited a reputation as a lazy worker and claims that she's targeted for blame whenever things go wrong. She doesn't realize that her own performance is what attracts the reputation.

If Carlos Lee looked like he was trying harder or caring more, he wouldn't have his motivation questioned for incidents like the one last Thursday when he failed to show up for a team workout. Lance Berkman and Hunter Pence haven't played markedly better than Lee has but nobody questions their hustle and desire because they see it on the field.

Ed Wade (and for you knee-jerk Wade-bashers out there, it needs to be noted that Lee was signed by Tim Purpura) has a decision to make. Does he talk McLane into eating most of $40 million just to trade Carlos out of Houston or suffer through two more seasons of a slugger who only comes to play when he feels like it? Neither is a good solution but that's the dilemma he faces.

Before the Astros can turn a page and evolve into a young, hustling ballclub that attracts fans back to Minute Maid, they must jettison the bloated contracts that have hamstrung their progress. The question is whether that happens this winter or if it will have to play out two years in the future.