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The butterfly effect of Carlos Lee and the NL West

If Carlos Lee liked the West Coast just a little bit more, the baseball world would be a much different place. (Maybe.)


Carlos Lee is retiring. You thought Carlos Lee had already retired. This sort of confusion happens all the time. So let's take a moment to look back at what Carlos Lee was:

1. The best Panamanian hitter since Rod Carew

2. The 193rd best outfielder in baseball history according to WAR (just behind Elmer Valo, Terry Puhl, and Vernon Wells!), and one of the 136 players in the 300 Home Run Club

3. A one-name cautionary tale when it comes to small-sample defensive metrics

A good player for a long time, give or take. White Sox fans remember him fondly, Brewers fans remember him … less fondly, considering that he left with Nelson Cruz. Astros fans remember him. Marlins fans don't.

But what fascinates me about Lee are his contributions to the NL West. He's never played in the NL West. But the last few years of NL West history were impossible without him. Behold, the Butterfly Effect of Carlos Lee:

November, 2006

Carlos Lee, already 31 with a less-than-stellar defensive reputation, is a popular free agent. A team looking to acquire him probably figured they'd get a player who would hit enough to make his fielding bearable for the first few years, but mostly devoid of value toward the end of the contract. That's exactly what the Astros got.

But the Giants were looking for something more. They were looking for a superstar to replace Barry Bonds as the face of a franchise.

According to a well-placed source, they offered Carlos Lee what would have ranked as the largest contract in franchise history -- $112 million over six years -- but the All-Star outfielder rebuffed them to sign a six-year, $100 million deal with the Houston Astros on Friday.

Because Texas doesn't have state income tax, the deals were effectively the same. The Giants had been after Alfonso Soriano, too, desperate for the post-Bonds face of the franchise. They had to settle on another year of Bonds and his lousy .480 on-base percentage. But they also needed a star. They were like a frantic single dad in a toy store on December 24th, looking for the impossible-to-find toy of the season so his kid won't hate him. He was desperate enough to leave with a Gobot. Or whatever the 2000s version of a Gobot was, anyway.

They got their star.


Photo credit: Cass Bird / GQ

Barry Zito became the face of the franchise, for better or for worse. Then better! Then worse again. If Carlos Lee isn't so freaked out by the big dimensions of AT&T Park (which weren't really thought of as a big deal back then, actually) and the income tax of California, the Giants don't sign Zito.

And if the Giants don't sign Zito, with whom does he sign?

A list of teams interested, according to MLB Trade Rumors back in the day: Mets, Padres, Yankees, Rangers, Mariners. The Mets even had him on their website's 40-man roster briefly for some reason.

The Mariners were reportedly the second option for Zito. But I'm going to guess Yankees. And, oh, how that would have been hilarious. Although the ERAs he put up in Arlington would have been something for the ages, too.

But Carlos Lee didn't sign with the Giants, and that effectively took Zito off the market in a roundabout way.

July, 2012

The Dodgers were looking for a first baseman because James Loney was horrible. They thought they had one in Carlos Lee. For reasons. The trade was Lee for Garrett Gould, and it was done. All that was left was Lee's approval ... which he declined to provide. The Dodgers got huffy and pulled the trade because they figured if Lee wasn't eager to be a Dodger, nuts to him.

So the Dodgers kept searching for a first baseman. They kept searching and searching and searching, hoping another team had an expensive one, available for mere salary relief (and/or in exchange for good prospects, of course).

The Red Sox had one. They also had a left fielder and a pitcher they were willing to move. And Nick Punto. A blockbuster deal eventually happened.

Does it happen if Carlos Lee decides to become a Dodger? It's not out of the question. But I wonder if the urgency is there if Lee is on the roster. The Dodgers have certainly been willing to ignore roster crunches (the eight-pitcher logjam from March, the four-outfielder logjam now).

If Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett had stayed on the Red Sox, what would the baseball world be like? They probably wouldn't have Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Ryan Dempster. But for 2013, it might have been a wash. The Sox might even be better, considering Gonzalez is still a pretty good hitter. That's a more appropriate hypothetical question to ask in 2017, probably.

And the Dodgers would have signed Josh Hamilton. I have no evidence for this. But they wouldn't have had their big, expensive hitting star by way of a trade, so they would have gone out to get one. It would have been Hamilton. They would have gone over the top with a sixth year. It would have been glorious.

But the capriciousness of Carlos Lee got in the way. As it usually did.

Lee will be remembered as a really good hitter and a really limited fielder. He'll also be a guy who changed baseball history, especially in the NL West. You just have to travel down the what-if rabbit hole to get there.