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Derrek Lee's 2010 Season Hampered By Thumb Troubles

For fans of the Chicago Cubs, the 2010 NLDS probably brought mixed emotions. There at first base for the (ultimately unsuccessful) Atlanta Braves was Derrek Lee, the man who played that position for the North Siders from 2004 until his trade deadline move to Bobby Cox's wild card winners just this past July.

Some Cubs fans may have found some twisted sense of gratification in seeing Lee struggle in the postseason. (He got two hits, both singles, in 17 plate appearances, drawing one walk and striking out six times.) But, for others, it was still sad to watch this beloved player -- certainly one of the best first basemen ever to wear a Cubs uniform -- do next to nothing at the plate. (He did appear to play his usual solid defense, scooping out plenty of low throws.)

At the very least, DLee loyalists can argue that he helped the Braves win that wild card spot. He put up an .849 OPS (which includes a .384 OBP) in 151 plate appearances down the stretch. Still, overall, he had a disappointing season, hitting .260/.347/.428 (.774 OPS, .340 wOBA, 2.0 WAR). Not awful, by any means. But nowhere near his remarkably resurgent 2009 or his likely career-best 2005. Word yesterday out of Atlanta may reveal why.

A post on the blog of David O'Brien, the Braves beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reports that Derrek Lee suffered a jammed thumb on Opening Day 2010 -- during a game, ironically enough, against the Braves. The post notes that the injury had improved by the time the Chicago-Atlanta trade went down, but that Derrek re-injured the same opposable digit about a week after donning a Braves uniform. The article states:

Lee played the rest of the season with [a torn thumb ligament] an injury even more severe that what kept Jason Heyward out of action for three weeks and hindered him the six weeks prior.

What's worse, Lee presumably still struggles with a herniated disc in his back that occasionally flares up. In light of all this, Derrek's season looks a little more understandable -- and perhaps even commendable. He played through the pain and made a difference, at least a little bit for somebody, in a playoff run.

Then again, as always, we can't help asking whether it would've been better for Lee to take a DL stint for the thumb earlier in the season. Maybe he could have helped the Cubs not look quite so hopeless and awful in April and May (... and June ... and July). And perhaps it would have been less prone to re-injury.

But, let's be honest, all else remaining the same, even a healthy Derrek Lee probably wouldn't have gotten the 2010 Cubs to the 92+ wins it would've taken to beat the Cincinnati Reds. His contract was almost up, his time was running out -- and at least the team got one promising young pitching prospect for him (Robinson Lopez).

So what does the future hold for Derrek? Hard to say. He turned 35 last month, and these nagging injuries don't bode well for the future. Then again, he is a widely respected player who can still swing the bat to a certain extent.

It would be surprising if the Cubs invited him back on a one- or two-year (presumably incentive-laden deal.) And, according to this tweet by O'Brien, the Braves probably won't be requesting his services again either. Plus, he'll have a number of other first basemen to compete against for jobs, including Lance Berkman, Adam LaRoche, Lyle Overbay and, the big donkey name, Adam Dunn.

Could Derrek end up like his friend Jermaine Dye, the odd man out in an increasingly stingy MLB market? It's possible. One thing's for sure: When you consider that both Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez had thumb injuries this year, clearly the Baseball Gods were sending a message about the Cubs' chances in 2010.