2012 MLB Prospect Watch: Tampa Bay Rays Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee
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Just four years ago, Hak-Ju Lee was signed out of South Korea for $1.15 million by the Chicago Cubs as a 17 year-old high school senior in 2008. Cubs' scouts believed that had Lee been in the amateur draft, he would have been a first round pick.
For comparison, shortstop Tim Beckham, taken first overall by the Rays in 2008, was given a $6.15 million signing bonus.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the 2008 season, Lee was assigned to Chicago's Low A team, the Boise Hawks.
Here, Lee excelled at that the plate during his 68 games played, batting .330/.399/.420 with 56 runs and 25 stolen bases in 32 attempts.
At the same time, the Cubs had another shortstop by the name of Starlin Castro playing at high A Daytona and AA Tennessee—and it looked like Lee may not become the shortstop of the future for the Chicago Cubs.
After a 2010 season in which Lee slightly regressed offensively in A ball—and Starlin Castro was called up to The Show and finished in fifth place for Rookie of the Year—it was clear that if Lee was going to have a chance to play in the Majors it was going to have to be with another team.
On January 7, 2011, the Cubs traded Lee, along with Sam Fuld, Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos and Brandon Guyer to the Tampa Bay Rays for Matt Garza, Fernando Perez and Zachary Rosscup.
Upon being traded to the Rays, Baseball America ranked Lee as the 92nd best prospect in baseball and ESPN's Keith Law was raving over the shortstop.
Is Hak-Ju Lee the Rays' shortstop of the future?
Law stated that Lee was the star of the deal and could be a potential monster at shortstop for the Rays.
Lee looked to prove Keith Law right during the 2011 season—and succeeded. While playing between high A Charlotte and AA Montgomery, Lee posted a .292/.365/.416 line with 98 runs, 15 triples and 33 stolen bases as a 20 year-old.
Lee's 2011 season caused Keith Law to rank the shortstop as the 12th best prospect in Major League Baseball.
With Tim Beckham continuing to struggle to adapt to the pro game, Lee looks to become the shortstop of the future for the Rays.
But, just how does Lee check out? We'll take a look at how the 20 year-old projects below.
As of right now, Lee projects to be a top of the order bat. With fast feet, quick hands and a short stride, Lee has the ability to slap the ball around the field.
Lee's speed is his biggest asset here, as he is able to beat out quite a few infield hits. Because of this, Lee's batting average should end up about 15 points higher than a player with a similar skill set with less speed.
Lee does have some holes in his swing and he appears to have some trouble getting to pitches that are low in the zone. Lee can also get tied up with some breaking pitches, but that is typical of a 20 year-old. With the right batting coach, Lee can fix the holes in his swing.
MLB projection: .280 to .285 hitter
This is easily the worst part of Lee's game. While Lee is 6'2" and 170 pounds, he does not really have the frame to build muscle upon, nor would the added muscle benefit his game.
At the Major League level, Lee could run into his share of fastballs, but he's more likely to put those in the gap for doubles and triples than to hit the ball out of the park.
Lee's power game reminds me of former Tampa Bay Ray Akinori Iwamura. He's never going to be a threat to go deep, but he will put one over the fence if you make a mistake.
MLB projection: Three to seven home runs.
The strongest part of Lee's game by far. The average baseball player runs from home to first base in a little over 4.2 seconds.
Of the video that I have watched of Lee, I have him clocked between 4.07 seconds and 4.15 seconds.This puts Lee well above average and he's still growing as a base-runner.
While it's clear that he has the speed with 90 stolen bases in 311 game, Hak-Ju needs to pick his spots a little better, as he has been caught stealing 31 times in that same span.
Youth is on Lee's side and he should be able to develop better base stealing instincts as he gains experience.
When it comes to base-running, Lee does show good poise for his age as he is able to run first to third very well.
Lee's speed is his premium. It is going to add to his value once he gets to the Majors and we could see the speed hole left by Upton's upcoming departure filled by the South Korean shortstop.
MLB projection: 40 stolen bases
Numbers don't always tell the story about a player's fielding ability. Sometimes the players that make more errors are actually the better players. Because Lee is so fast, he is able to get to a lot of balls that other players are not able to get to. However, Lee has more chances to make errors.
Lee's first two seasons in the field saw the shortstop have 27 and 34 errors in his first two seasons, respectively. But, this past season, the shortstop cut his errors down to 18.
Lee has drawn comparisons to a young Omar Vizquel with a stronger arm. If Lee were to get called up to the Majors right now, he would most likely be one of the top six or seven fielding shortstops in the league.
MLB Projection: Lee will win at least two Gold Gloves at shortstop.
Lee's arm is directly related to his fielding abilities. His throw from short has been clocked at 89 mph and the South Korean can make throws off his back foot like it is natural. Sometimes Lee airmails a few back foot throws, but it is nothing out of the ordinary.
If Lee's batting doesn't develop like planned, his arm and fielding ability should be enough to keep the 20 year old in the line-up, a la David Eckstein.
While I don't believe that Lee will become the type of player that Keith Law thinks, Lee will definitely make an impact for the Rays down the road and may become double play partners with former first overall pick, Tim Beckham.
With the way that the Rays use their prospects, it is possible that we will see Lee come up and play for the Rays in September before being sent back down in 2013 and being recalled in early May.
The Rays are going to have a slick fielding, base stealer to look forward to in early 2013.
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