The Milwaukee Brewers have added a handful of arms to the organization in the last week. Always one to explore every possible avenue of finding available talent, David Stearns signed one “regular” free agent, veteran left-hander Brett Anderson. He also gave a three-year MLB contract to Josh Lindblom after the right-hander spent most of the last five years pitching in Korea. And finally, he made yet another foray into the independent ball ranks to ink a rather compelling southpaw hurler.
The contract of LHP Chris Lee has been purchased from the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.— Brewers Player Dev (@BrewersPD) December 10, 2019
Chris Lee, who turned 27 last summer, began his career as a 4th-round pick out of Junior College by the Astros back in 2011. Houston brought him along slowly at first, as he spent his first three professional seasons in rookie ball before finally getting bumped up to the Midwest League in 2014. He posted a 3.66 ERA with Quad Cities that summer and continued that success into the 2015 season as he advanced across three levels for two organizations. Lee began the year back in the Quad Cities, but after getting traded to the Orioles in May for two international bonus pool slots, his new employers promoted him to Class A-Advanced Frederick. He made 14 starts there before finishing the year with a nice run in Double-A Bowie. All together, it added up to a 3.29 ERA in 145.0 innings covering 28 outings (27 starts). That was enough to convince Baltimore to add him to their 40-man roster after the season concluded.
Since then, however, Lee has been beset by myriad injuries. A lat strain limited him to 51.1 innings in 2016. He was mostly healthy in 2017, but struggled during his first exposure to Triple-A — a 5.11 ERA in 116.1 innings. Shoulder and oblique problems had him on the shelf once again for most of 2018, and he wound up throwing only 32.0 regular season frames and another 20.2 in the Arizona Fall League. The Orioles transitioned him to a full-time reliever to begin the 2019 season, but after a combined 5.85 ERA in 19 games and 47.2 innings at Double-A and Triple-A, he was cut loose in mid-July.
Lee wasn’t out of work for long, though, as he hooked on with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, the same league that our local Milwaukee Milkmen participate in. He quickly worked himself into an integral multi-inning role in the bullpen for the Saints, covering 26.1 innings across 12 appearances with a 4.10 ERA and a 95 FIP-. His contributions helped St. Paul capture their first-ever American Association championship.
Coming up through the minors, Lee routinely ranked among Baltimore’s top prospects. He was rated at #6 in their system according to Baseball America prior to the 2016 season, and was #10 before both 2017 and 2018. But under their previous front office regime, the Orioles became notorious for failing to get the most out of their pitching prospects. The stuff is there for Lee — he throws between 92-96 MPH with his fastball and tops at 97, along with what Fangraphs scouts called an “above-average slider” prior to 2019 and “a changeup with plus potential” according to BA.
But even with that compelling cache of offerings, a starter’s build at 6’3” and 180 lbs, and a quick but smooth delivery without many moving parts, Lee long struggled to miss bats like one might expect. His career strikeout rate is a mere 6.8 K/9 in 612.0 innings, and his command grades as below average — a 45 future grade from Fangraphs along with an average of 4.1 BB/9 across his nine minor league seasons.
In terms of generating those missing strikeouts, however, it appears that Lee began to turn a corner in 2019 after analytically-slanted Mike Elias took over the organization and began installing his own coaches and playing philosophies. Lee punched out 49 batters with Baltimore’s affiliates before getting cut loose, the first time in his career that he posted a whiff rate greater than a batter per inning (9.3 K/9). He continued those bat-missing ways in St. Paul, setting down 32 of the 109 batters that he faced on strikes (29.4%) for a 10.9 K/9 rate.
Lee is still young enough to dream on his untapped upside. Baseball America listed his ceiling as that of a #4 starter as recently as 2018, adding that his floor should be that of a late-inning relief arm. He averaged between two and three innings during his 30 combined appearances this past season and was primarily a starter at every level before that, so it’s not difficult to envision him stretching back out as an initial out-getter for the Triple-A San Antonio Missions to begin 2020. The Brewers are a little short on both starting pitching and relief depth, so Lee could theoretically be a fit in either role. Whether he’s beginning games or working the later innings may simply come down to how confident the front office is in him staying healthy and the volume of innings they believe his body can handle.
One final interesting note about Chris Lee — he is legally blind in his right eye. He has been that way since birth, however, so it isn’t something that scouts or front offices have ever really though of as much of an issue.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference