Adios, El Caballo

added 7/6/2012 by Bob Hulsey

After so many words have been spent on Carlos Lee since he arrived with the Astros in 2007, it doesn't seem right to let his trade to Miami go without comment. "El Caballo" came to town after signing a six-year, $100 million contract five months beyond his 30th birthday.

It should be noted from the beginning that Drayton McLane had finally spent above budget to bring pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens into the fold but, having lost sluggers Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran and watching Jeff Bagwell's arthritic shoulder end his career, it was Clemens who demanded McLane get more offense into the lineup because he'd lost too many well-pitched games.

The only way McLane could do that The Yankee Way was to sign Lee to a monster contract which meant, ironically, there was no money for Clemens in 2007, who wound up coming out of another self-imposed retirement to sign with the Yankees that year.

An affable Panamanian, Lee was a lightning rod for criticism not because he was too intense or too much a jerk but because his motor only seemed to have one gear chasing fair balls into the left field corner or running to first. Fair or not, "The Horse" rarely seemed to break out of a trot and this infuriated fans who translated that into a lack of hustle or a lack of caring.

You might be shocked to learn that Carlos managed eight triples and 26 stolen bases (in 41 tries) during his 5-1/2 seasons with the Astros so there really was an extra gear he could summon on occasion. By contrast, Craig Biggio in his last five years hit six triples and stole 33 bases and Craig was considered the epitome of grit and hustle.

During the five full seasons he was in Houston, Lee averaged 26 homers, 101 RBIs and an .824 OPS with a remarkably low strikeout rate. In other words, for a guy signed to produce offense, Carlos delivered as advertised although it was clear he wasn't the same power bat at the end that he was when he was 30. His home run count declined each season.

The only significant time he spent out of the lineup was when he was hit in the hand during the 2008 pennant stretch and broke a finger, costing him the last six weeks of the season where he might have been the extra push needed to take the Astros to the playoffs.

Ah, yes. Playoffs. Carlos has only been there once (with Chicago in 2000) and his reluctance to join the Dodgers recently screamed that postseasons weren't a big priority for him. When Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt left the Astros, they made it clear they wanted to reach the World Series because that ought to be the goal for every player. That wasn't true for Lee.

Lee's apologists will argue that it wasn't his fault he signed such a hefty contract (if someone offered you $100 million, would you turn it down?) that made him almost impossible to trade or that he exercised the no-trade clause written into his contract. It wasn't his fault that the franchise deteriorated around him and he couldn't keep them afloat. It wasn't his fault that his skill set didn't match that required of an outfielder. He proved himself quite agile as a first baseman when he was given the chance and clearly worked hard at learning the position.

It's also not his fault that the big guy is slow to anger and generally a happy man on and off the field. I bet most of us would trade our lives for the one Carlos has in a heartbeat - rich, happy, spends his time playing a kid's game. That could be one reason he receives so little sympathy.

Carlos Lee's contract, moreso than Carlos Lee himself, was the yoke around the neck that McLane and Ed Wade couldn't rid themselves of. Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow should be congratulated for essentially eating the last $9 million of the deal to end an era and move the Astros to a new image as they move to a new league.

In another touch of irony, the Astros shed their designated hitter just when their ballclub could actually use one in the American League but don't look for Carlos to come back in 2013. He'll want to, no doubt, in order to extend his career while being close to his South Texas cattle ranch. But don't think Luhnow will agree to that now.

Whether he knew it or not, Carlos burned his bridge with the Astros when he dawdled on accepting the trade with the Dodgers. Players who refuse a trade that costs the franchise $8 million will not be welcomed back with open arms. Technically, the Dodgers rescinded the offer when they saw Carlos treat them with all the urgency he used to show tracking down a double in the corner but I think they also realized from media reaction that Luhnow was getting the better of them.

The Marlins trade reflected Luhnow's desire to move on after the weekend drama. He has bigger deals (Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers) to make and he didn't need to waste time trying to appease a diva. That reported $8 million the Dodgers were willing to pay on Lee's contract would have given Luhnow much more wiggle room to finance his other deals.

I think most Houston fans will be happy when there are no more big contracts left to unload and we can finally see an organization that wants to win rather than an organization that wants to save money. However it may be rationalized to the accountants and the Moneyball crowd, selling off successful and marketable veterans for minor leaguers doesn't endear ownership to "win now" fans.

It will be a long time before those fans have a reason to return to Minute Maid except to root for the Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox. When the Astros display more urgency to win than Carlos Lee did, perhaps a few more doubters will come back.

After El Caballo's career is put out to pasture, perhaps some day we'll reflect that his attitude towards winning wasn't all that different than the franchise he played for while he was in Houston.