KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The gray hairs now occupying space on the chin of Astros left fielder Carlos Lee are either the first outward signs of the burly 34-year-old slugger showing his age, or the results of a winter spent fretting over one of the most disappointing seasons of his career.
Lee arrived at camp Sunday morning in typical fashion, shuffling deliberately through the bustling clubhouse with a grin while looking for some familiar faces to exchange barbs. The 12-year veteran is the graybeard on a team full of young up-and-comers, guys that were in high school when Lee was driving in 84 runs as a rookie in 1999.
And like so many of the prospects in camp with the Astros this year, Lee has plenty to prove himself. He's eager to put 2010 to bed and re-establish himself as one of the game's premier RBI threats. Lee drove in at least 100 runs in five consecutive seasons before slumping to 89 last year.
The fact that Lee still wound up with so may RBIs is surprising considering he didn't collect his first until nearly two weeks in the season. He wound up hitting .246 -- 42 points below his career average -- and hitting 24 homers, which was his lowest total since 2001.
"I feel I've got a lot to prove," he said. "I know I'm way better than the season I had last year and that I'm capable of doing a lot to help this team."
The Astros are banking on it.
"He is the person that could make a huge difference on this team," owner Drayton McLane said.
"Carlos is huge for us," general manager Ed Wade said.
"He needs to bring the thunder," right fielder Hunter Pence said.
No one is expecting more out of the left fielder than Lee himself. He's buoyed by the fact he rebounded somewhat in the second half of last season. He had 41 RBIs in the final 61 games of the year after needing 96 games to drive in his first 48.
With Lee and others in the lineup struggling offensively, the Astros were buried in the standings by the time he got his bat going. That led them to trade Lance Berkman, who had occupied the heart of the lineup with Lee for 3 1/2 seasons, and wound up putting more pressure on Lee to perform.
"At one point in the season, everything I hit was an out," he said. "I hit hard, soft, whatever, it was an out. Overall I made really good contact all year long. I didn't strike out much and just couldn't get any hits. At the end of the year, I know my numbers were down, but I still hit 24 homers and had 90 RBIs. It's not Carlos Lee, but it wasn't bad, though."
Wade knew Lee wasn't himself in the first half based on the number of popups he hit.
"I saw balls he normally hits on a line get skied 170 feet in the air," he said. "That's not Carlos, and we all know that. Carlos is the big part of the field, hitting balls up the middle and knocking guys in and along the way smoking them into the Crawford Boxes on a regular basis.
"I think the first half of last year was an aberration. That's not what Carlos has been as a Major League player, and I'm not surprised he came in here on the first day and told you guys [the media] he's on a mission."
Astros manager Brad Mills took the unusual step of flying to Lee's native Panama this offseason to spend a couple of days with him in an effort to build a better relationship. It appears to have worked, with Lee busting Mills' chops as he walked through the clubhouse doors.
"He takes a lot of pride on how he plays the game and that he's said a number of times that what he showed wasn't him," Mills said.
Those close to Lee, including his teammates, say he's misunderstood. He's often the focus of scorn by the fans for what at times appears to be a lack of effort on the field, but teammates insist he works hard behind the scenes.
"People have the wrong perception about him," outfielder Michael Bourn said. "They think he doesn't care, but I know. He cares. I remember a couple of years ago he was going through a slump and he got in the cage and he didn't want anybody else in there while he was hitting. He takes it serious, man.
"He takes the game serious, he wants to win and he likes to play. He's serious when it comes to his business and he takes it personal."
Lee has heard the criticism.
"At the end of the day, you know what you do," he said. "If you're at peace with yourself, that's all that counts."
Lee, in the fifth year of a six-year, $100-million contract, spent much of last September playing first base and could wind up there again if Brett Wallace doesn't win the job in the spring. Lee insists he has no preference on what defensive position he plays. He's more worried about living up to the expectations he and others placed on him.
"I kind of thought about it [this winter] and tried to find some answers, tried to see what went wrong," he said. "Like I said, I couldn't find anything. I worked harder than ever to try to fix it, and it didn't work. I guess it was one of those years, you know?"
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.