Lee makes fine candidate for Aaron Award
Veteran slugger is fixture of success in Astros' lineup
HOUSTON -- The Astros' lineup has been a revolving door in the last two years, with blockbuster trades that sent Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn to the thick of pennant races, while the Astros welcomed a steady flow of rookies getting their feet wet in the Major Leagues.
The one constant: Carlos Lee.
The veteran outfielder-turned-first baseman certainly didn't put up the kind of numbers he did in the first three seasons of his six-year deal with the Astros, but he remained the team's most feared slugger and top run producer. Lee is the Astros' nominee for the 2011 Hank Aaron Award.
This coveted honor is awarded annually to the best overall offensive performer in both the American League and National League. Originally introduced in 1999 to honor the 25th anniversary of Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, the Hank Aaron Award was the first major award to be introduced in 30 years.
For the second straight year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award.
This year, the Hall of Fame panel will include two new members -- personally selected by Aaron -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Morgan. They join panelists from last year, which included Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Robin Yount, forming a group comprised of some of the greatest offensive players of all-time. These Hall of Famers -- who combined for 23,536 hits, 11,445 RBI and exactly 2,800 home runs -- have all agreed to join Aaron in lending their expertise to select the best offensive performers in each League.
Fans will have the opportunity to select one American League and one National League winner from a list comprising one finalist per club through Sunday. The winners will be announced during the World Series.
Lee, 35, has reached at least 90 RBIs in four of his five years with the Astros, falling just one RBI short in 2010. What made his numbers this year even more remarkable was the fact he got off to such a bad start in April. He hit .194 with two homers and 15 RBIs in the season's first month. He finished the season hitting .275, with 18 home runs and 94 RBIs.
"That's something I take a lot of pride in my career, driving in runs and getting the best out of it. At the same time, that's why you play 162 games," Lee said. "You've got to play and go hard, and it ain't over until it's over."
Astros manager Brad Mills has been a staunch supporter of Lee, who is seldom out of the lineup, even when he's struggling.
"What he's done to be able to get to 90 RBIs is good," Mills said prior to the end of the season. "He's doing some things differently now than he was doing back in April and May, and it's something that we're going to be able to look back on."
Lee, who hit his 16th career grand slam on July 25, began the season once again in left field and was among league leaders in outfield assists before shifting to first base following the trades of Pence and Bourn.
The Astros called up prospect J.D. Martinez and put him in left, and sent Brett Wallace down to Triple-A to make room for Lee at first base. The big man handled himself pretty well at first base, which wasn't too surprising, considering Lee came up through the White Sox system as a third baseman.
Unlike left field, where Lee played his first 4 1/2 seasons with the Astros, occupying first base meant Lee was involved in pretty much every play, which required an adjustment period.
"It's more of a challenge at first base than it is in left field," he said. "You have to be somewhere on every pitch, you've got to be moving every single pitch. You're more in the game when you're in the infield, and you're always on the move. When you play in [chilly] weather, if you're in the outfield and you're not doing much, you're going to get stiff. At first base, every time the ball's hit, you've got to move."