1. Archive

Rays' Lee halfway to greatness

There is a fatalism to the way Travis Lee evaluates a baseball season.

Asked about the strong second half he put together in 2005, and why it was so different from his offensively challenged first half, the Devil Rays first baseman sounded as if at the mercy of some great unseen force.

"I seriously can't tell you," Lee said Wednesday. "I have no idea, no clue."

He was certain of one thing, though, "I always tell myself, if I could combine a good first half and second half, I'd be great."

It is an opinion seconded by others, and backed up by the same numbers that have Lee so seemingly befuddled.

Let's start with this: Lee, 30, is one of the best (if not the best) defensive first basemen in the majors. His .272 batting average last season, 12 home runs and 49 RBIs were okay considering that through July 20 he batted .233 with two home runs and 19 RBIs.

In the final 56 games in which he batted, Lee hit .320 (58-for-181) with 10 home runs and 30 RBIs. Extrapolate that over 162 games and he has 29 home runs, 87 RBIs and his star is as bright as 1996, when he was drafted second overall by the Twins.

"He'd be one of the top out there," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "He has all the tools. He can hit for power. He just needs to play at the highest level all the time."

"You have a first baseman like that, that really promotes confidence at second, short and third, so he already has a lot of impact out there," manager Joe Maddon said. "I'd just like to see him push a little further because this guy is a really good ballplayer."

Lee consistently makes jaws drop with his glove and footwork. On at least two occasions last season the San Diego native changed feet on the bag and leaned back into foul territory to snag wickedly bouncing throws.

His .997 fielding percentage is the all-time best among first basemen with at least 750 games.

He made just four errors in 2005 and his .996 percentage tied Chicago's Paul Konerko for third in the American League. And his first flub of the season on June 19 snapped a 170-game errorless streak, eight off the league record.

"To me, Travis Lee should win the Gold Glove every year he plays," Lugo said. "He's got the best instincts I've ever seen. I've played with some good first basemen but Travis is the best."

But Lee never has won a Gold Glove.

An argument can be made his fielding was overlooked nationally last season because he played with a last-place team. It also is reasonable he would get more recognition with the form that produced 22 home runs in 1998 for the Diamondbacks, 20 in 2001 for the Phillies and 19 with 70 RBIs in 2003 for Tampa Bay.

Despite Lee's shoulder shrugs when asked about what hindered him last season, there is a theory: shoulder surgery limited him to seven games in 2004 for the Yankees, and it took half of 2005 before he gained his strength and timing.

Lee, who returned to the Rays as a free agent in February 2005 and has a $2.45-million deal for 2006, never used the injury as an excuse.

"It's just confidence," he said. "Confidence goes a long way in this game. If you're struggling, you start not believing in yourself. But if you have success and start believing in yourself, everything starts flowing."

The early flow this season is downstream. Lee looks lean and strong and said he dropped five pounds to 212 because of nightly work on his elliptical machine which minimized the consequences of his burrito cravings.

"No goals, just get in shape and get ready to play," he said. "Try to get your timing down. That's all it is. Hitting is timing and trying to get your confidence up."

Lee's enthusiasm was up after the first day of full-squad workouts at the Naimoli Complex, and praised the "really positive" atmosphere he said is thanks to Maddon.

"It sounds like we're going to have fun," Lee said.

It sounds like Lee has found his clue.