Hak-Ju Lee was signed by the Chicago Cubs out of South Korea in 2008 and quickly emerged as one of the game’s more intriguing shortstop prospects. But after only two years in the Cubs system—including an impressive full-season debut at Low-a Peoria in 2010—Lee, along with right-hander Chris Archer and three other players, was traded to the Rays after the 2010 season in exchange for a player package highlighted by Matt Garza.
Assigned to High-A Charlotte for the 2011 season, Lee took the pitcher-friendly Florida State League by storm, batting .318/.389/.443 with 31 extra-base hits and 28 stolen bases in 97 games. However, the left-handed hitter unexpectedly struggled at Double-A Montgomery after a late-season promotion, posting a .190 batting average with 22 strikeouts in 24 games.
Lee spent the entire 2012 season back at Double-A where his approach and on-base skills were challenged once again. Playing in 116 games, he batted .261/.336/.360 with 29 extra-base hits and a career-high 37 stolen bases. But for a projected top-of-the-order hitter, Lee’s 68 runs scored and 102 strikeouts were a disappointment.
Due to their lack of a long-term shortstop, the Rays continued to move Lee up the organizational ladder with a promotion to Triple-A Durham to begin the 2013 season. Perhaps making up for the lost time, the 22-year-old opened the year on fire with a .422 batting average (1.136 OPS) and six stolen bases through the first 15 games.
Sadly, Lee’s potential bounce-back season ended prematurely. In Durham’s game against Norfolk on April 21, Lee suffered torn ligaments in his left knee during a collision at second base and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery. Considering his hot start at Triple-A, Lee would have likely spent at least a few months in the major leagues this past season.
Viewed as the Rays’ future shortstop since joining the organization in 2011, Lee has the upside of a Gold Glove-caliber defender with plus speed and an above-average hit tool. Even if the bat never comes around, his defensive prowess should make him an everyday middle infielder in the major leagues.
Provided that his knee injury isn’t an issue moving forward, Lee, who already owns a spot on the Rays’ 40-man roster, could receive a call-up early in the 2014 season.