SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — The question brought a smile and a head nod from first baseman Derrek Lee, a nonverbal confirmation that he’s excited about batting third in the Baltimore Orioles’ revamped lineup.
Yes, Lee has thought about hitting in front of Vladimir Guerrero — and all the damage they could do.
“We’ve got a good lineup. It’s exciting,” Lee said. “One through nine, we’ve got guys who can hit. We’ve got some speed in the lineup. I think we’re going to be able to put some runs on the board.”
Lee reported to camp Saturday after signing a one-year, $7.5 million contract last month. The Orioles held their first full-squad workout on Monday, but Lee is restricted in his activities while rehabbing his right thumb.
He underwent surgery in November to repair a torn ligament in the thumb, an injury he sustained on opening day last year with the Chicago Cubs. Lee has been hitting soft tosses in the indoor cage at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, and hopes to graduate to live batting practice in the next week to 10 days.
“Everything’s progressing right on schedule. In fact, he’s ahead of schedule,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Right now, I don’t see it being a problem for us if he continues to progress at the rate that he is.”
Lee’s production tailed off last year after he drove in 111 runs in 2009 and finished ninth in MVP voting in the National League. He batted a combined .260 with 19 homers and 80 RBIs in 109 games with the Cubs and 39 with the Atlanta Braves.
“I have a little chip on my shoulder,” the 35-year-old said. “I hear people say I’m old, I’m declining. I want to prove that theory wrong. I’m getting up there, I’ve played the game a long time, but that doesn’t mean I’m getting worse because of age. I had a bad year, but that’s behind me.”
The Orioles almost traded for Lee in the winter of 2003, but they couldn’t work out an extension after he visited Camden Yards with his family, so the Florida Marlins dealt him to the Cubs.
“I guess I was meant to be an Oriole,” he said.
It’s been a long and winding road. The Orioles made offers to free-agent first basemen Victor Martinez, Adam Dunn and Adam LaRoche this winter before reaching agreement with Lee.
A month later, they reached agreement with Guerrero, who signed his contract on Friday and will bat cleanup as the full-time designated hitter.
“I was fired up,” Lee said. “This guy is one of the premier hitters in the game, just a pure hitter. He falls out of bed hitting. So, you stick him in the middle of the lineup, he just makes guys around him better because he’s one of those guys the other teams have to focus on. When he’s hot, he can carry a team two or three weeks at a time.”
The Orioles went 34-23 after hiring Showalter in early August. Lee tracked their progress and noted all the additions they made in the offseason, including trades that brought third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy.
“You started taking notice of them last year,” Lee said. “Even in the National League, you saw what Baltimore was doing to finish up the season. And that continued in the offseason.”
Lee will serve as one of the veteran leaders. He’s viewed as being approachable and willing to share his experiences with younger players.
“It’s fun playing with the young guys because they’re hungry and excited and they bring that passion,” he said. “And you can show them the ropes along the way, whatever advice they may need or questions they may have. Some of us have been through the fires and we can bring some guidance.”
Right fielder Nick Markakis and minor league infielder Pedro Florimon were the last two position players to report, giving the Orioles perfect attendance for Monday’s workout.
Guerrero hit outdoors for the first time and launched couple balls into the parking lot beyond the left field fence. Lee took grounders at first base and worked on turning the 3-6-3 double play.
“This was the first time we were all able to get out on the field together,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “Just being able to get on the field and stretch as a team, that’s what it’s all about. It’s the first day that everybody’s got on their spikes and I’m sure people’s feet will be hurting tonight. But let’s get it going, let’s get the ball rolling.”
Showalter said right-hander Brad Bergesen will start the Feb. 28 exhibition opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, followed by Chris Tillman. Both pitchers will work two or three innings.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)