Tampa Bay Rays Middle Infield: Hak-Ju Lee Is Coming—Or Is He?

Steven Goldman@GoStevenGoldmanMLB Lead BloggerApril 13, 2012

Hak-Ju Lee: The Cubs' gift to the Rays?
Hak-Ju Lee: The Cubs' gift to the Rays?Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Yesterday, I speculated as to if the Raysweak middle infield would doom them in 2012. In response, reader Paddy Rodenbeck commented:

[J]ust give it a year, Hak-Ju Lee is gonna be the long term solution at SS. great defensive and can hit for a decent average.

Lee is at Double-A this year, so he should get a shot at playing shortstop in the majors late this year (assuming a good start and aggressive promotion) or sometime next year.

For those who came in late, Lee was part of the five-player price the Cubs paid to acquire Matt Garza. He may yet prove to be the best prospect the Rays acquired in the deal. Prior to last season, Lee was considered a good, not great prospect, but then, he went to High-A Charlotte and hit .318/.389/.443 in 97 games.

Double-A hasn’t been as kind, but it’s only been 32 games. This winter, Kevin Goldstein wrote, “He could hit for average and steal bases at a rate few shortstops can match.” He ranked Lee as the org’s No. 2 prospect after Matt Moore. Baseball America concurred, also ranking him second to Moore and praised his glove.

There is a long distance, though, between Charlotte and Tampa—a bigger gap than the actual miles between the two. Lee hit .292/.365/.416 overall last year. Start hacking away at those numbers to account for the differences in difficulty level as you rise to the majors and what do you have left? Maybe .250/.310/.350? That’s better than Reid Brignac—anything would be—but unless the glove performs at an Ozzie Smith level, that’s not a star, and it’s not a long-term solution.

Now, Lee is only 21, and he could pick things up at Double-A and render all of this moot. Then the Rays could, as soon as next year, have the one last star that could allow them to truly challenge the Yankees and the Red Sox in the coming years—and they will need it, because there aren’t many more position players in that system. Right now, though, it seems like a thin and premature hope.