Chicago Cubs: Looking back on the trade for Derrek Lee

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

As we all hope for a big move from the Chicago Cubs at the Winter Meetings, let’s re-visit the deal that brought slugger Derrek Lee to the North Side.

We’ve all heard the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” In the case of one former member of the Chicago Cubs, it was more like, “After you beat them, join them.”

That was the case on November 25, 2003, when the Cubs made one of their best trades in recent memory. The Cubs and then-Florida Marlins swapped first basemen, with Hee-Seop Choi going to the Fish and Derrek Lee coming to the North Side of Chicago. Minor league pitcher Mike Nannini also went to the Marlins in the deal.

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Lee was an important part of the Marlins team that knocked the Cubs out of the playoffs in the seven-game National League Championship Series in 2003. Though he only had six hits in 32 at-bats in that series, one of them was a game-tying, two-run double off Mark Prior in that infamous eighth inning of Game 6. Because of that, Cubs fans may have had mixed feelings about the talented Lee coming to the team.

However, fans quickly warmed up to Lee, and he became one of the most important players of the 2000s. In 2004, his first year with the team, Lee batted .278 with 32 home runs and 98 RBI.

Then came 2005, one of the best seasons by a Cub in recent memory, in which Lee led the league in hits (199), doubles (50), batting (.335), slugging (.662), OPS (1.080), OPS+ (174), and total bases (393). He also won a Gold Glove Award for his defense and finished third in NL MVP voting.

Lee went on to have several more good years with the Cubs before being traded to the Atlanta Braves during the 2010 season. Though Chicago was quickly ousted from the postseason in both 2007 and 2008, it was no fault of Lee’s. The slugger went a combined 10-for-23 in the National League Division Series both years, spanning six games.

This ended up being a lopsided trade in favor of the Cubs. Choi was considered a top prospect and was the club’s main first baseman for the first part of 2003 before an injury prompted the team to go with an Eric KarrosRandall Simon platoon down the stretch. In 2004 with the Marlins, Choi hit 15 home runs before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers midseason. His career quickly fizzled after that. Meanwhile, Nannini never reached the majors.

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Looking back, it’s amazing that the Cubs were able to get such a quality player and ended up not having to give up much in return. It is sad that Choi’s career didn’t turn out the way many of us were expecting. However, the Marlins’ decision to strip the roster following their 2003 championship ended up being the Chicago Cubs’ gain.