The Tuesday Discussion: Jung Hoo Lee?
November 21, 2023
This week we asked our writers:
Should the Yankees sign Jung Hoo Lee?
Here are their replies:
*** Derek McAdam - Signing Jung Hoo Lee would be a great signing, in my opinion. While he doesn’t have much power, although it is decent, Lee brings something to the table that the Yankees don’t have much of: hitting for average and getting on base. Lee’s biggest issue is that he is coming off surgery for a fractured ankle, which teams are obviously hoping is fully healed. I think this is definitely a player the Yankees should consider targeting this off-season, as he will come cheaper than several of the big names.
Mike Whiteman - There's not enough historical data on players coming from KBO to MLB for my liking as I consider whether I'd like the Yankees to pursue Jung Hoo Lee. What we know is that he's a real nice contact hitter with a .340 career batting average in a league that has batted about .260-.270 of late. He's averaged about ten home runs and ten stolen bases a season.
My concern with Lee is how he handles MLB-level velocity, and that while he's not a plodder on the basepaths, I'm not sure he's that fast either. My fearless prediction is that he is a Ken Oberkfel - type hitter (this reference dates me a bit) who plays a good outfield and has a little bit of speed. A nice player who would address some of the team's many offensive shortcomings, but my preference would be for the Yankees to aim higher in their offseason upgrades.
Ed Botti - Unlike Yoshinobu Yamamoto, I have actually seen Lee play, albeit just a few games. So I do not have a ton of firsthand knowledge of his skill sets or desire. I do know that he is the son of Jong Beom Lee. Who was an accomplished ballplayer in his own right. What I do know about Lee is has the type of skill sets this team has needed for many years now. He is a high contact left-handed hitter, who hits to all fields and has some power. From what I have read, he is a corner outfielder, that may be able to squeak by in centerfield from time to time, but not an everyday centerfielder.
If all things were equal (which they are not), he would seem like a good fit at the top of the order. I do not know what type of money his agent is looking for, but he is an intriguing player that plays the game the way it should be played.
Maybe he has some Ha-Seong Kim in him, which isn’t a bad thing.
Being that he brings an element much needed to this team, means one thing: The GM will not sign him. He will sign the 200 K all or nothing player that doesn’t actually have a position on the team, and then try to fit him in at the wrong position just so his royal mistake who has $98 mill remaining, can still clog up the order.
Maybe I’m wrong?
Paul Semendinger - I like excitement. I like fun players. I like when teams break the mold. I want the Yankees to be aggressive and to be in on great players. Lee seems to fill a lot of boxes. He is young. He can play centerfield. He is a lefty. He puts the bat on the ball. I think he'd be exciting.
The Yankees of old were willing to take big chances. They knew about high risk, high reward. They also were willing to move on when a high risk, high reward player didn't work out, but I think Lee will be a very good player in the Major Leagues.
I'd love for the Yankees to be in on Lee. I'd love him to be wearing pinstripes. I say YES!
Andy Singer - There are obviously elements of Lee's profile that would be of great interest to the Yankees. He bats left-handed, he played CF in the KBO, he'll be just 25 next season, he was the KBO MVP in 2022, and he'll likely be a cheaper long-term option when compared to the other outfielders that can be acquired either via trade or free agency. Despite those positives, I'm a pretty hard "no" on Lee after evaluating game film, statistics, and scouting reports from international scouts.
I'll give the cliffnotes version here. Lee's offensive statistics are very impressive on the surface, but those must be taken with a grain of salt given that most talent evaluators peg the KBO's level of talent to be somewhere between AA and AAA in the US. Lee's feel for contact is genuinely impressive, however a scary majority of that contact is on the ground. That wouldn't necessarily be awful were Lee a speed demon on the bases, but his speed is average to slightly above, and he's coming off of a serious ankle injury that cut his 2023 season short. Lee's swing features a severe uppercut plane that will lead to weak contact against the better stuff he'll see stateside versus the stuff he hit against in the KBO. For reference, most of Lee's highlight reel shows him getting pull-side hits on really flat breaking balls and 88-91 MPH fastballs. He's not going to see many pitches like that in the Majors. He also is not regarded as a particular asset on the basepaths, and his defense in CF is considered passable, with some talk already of which corner Lee will play when he's forced out of the middle. MLB Trade Rumors is projecting a free agent deal of 5 years/$50 million, which seems light to me. That's probably about right for the 50th percentile projection for Lee, but someone is going to pay for the 85th percentile outcome when there are enough red flags in Lee's profile to bring the 15th percentile outcome closer to in-play.
For the sake of the growth of the game, I hope Jung Hoo Lee has a successful MLB career, but his profile has so much more risk than upside here. Lee has one carrying tool, his hit tool, and while that is a trait the Yankees need desperately from the left side of the plate, I have significant reservations that Lee's hit tool will translate given all of the other aforementioned factors. I'd leave him for someone else.
Tim Kabel - yes, they should. If only for the opportunity to hear, John Sterlings say, after every single, Jung Hoo’s on first. He would be a less expensive and younger alternative to Cody Bellinger.
Cary Greene - It seems like every winter the Yankees are linked to a pacific rim outfielder and this offseason is no different. I fully expat Brian Cashman to pass on Lee, as he has done in recent years, passing both Seiya Suzuki (.358 wOBA/126 wRC+/3.2 f-WAR), who was really good last season for the Cubs and Masataka Yoshida (.339 wOBA/109 wRC+/0.6 f-WAR) who wasn’t very impressive with the Red Sox. Here we go again - will Cashman look to the KBO to find a solution in left field for the Yankees. Somehow, I don’t see it happening.
Considering that Lee is primarily a ground ball hitter who sports a 52.9% ground ball rate and given that the Yankees really need to start playing more blue chip type stocks, I think signing Lee is starting to not look like such a good idea. One of our top posters here on SSTN, Yankees Blog, pointed out Lee's ground ball tendencies in a recent thread and ever since, my opinion on signing him has cooled off.
There is still a lot to like about Lee and to his credit, he makes a lot of hard contact which, given that MLB prohibited the use of defensive shifts, I could see Lee panning out as a viable outfielder. However, another concerning piece is that he's essentially been playing at a level equivalent to Double-A which begs the obvious question, can Lee make the massive jump to the game's loftiest level? He does have elite ability in terms of making contact, but he’s more of a shoot it through the hole in the infield type, who is therefore more likely to be a gap to gap type hitter.
With the Yankees having the worst dollar for dollar offense of all time last season, I think that the only chance the Yankees have of fixing things involves substantial spending and to be clear - I highly doubt the Yankees will do this – not with Hal Steinbrenner running things. While Cody Bellinger and Shohei Ohtani are both available, it’s doubtful that Steinbrenner will allow Brian Cashman to make every attempt possible to sign them both. It’s likely one or the other and that’s probably why we’re having the Lee conversation today here on SSTN.
Because I think it will come up in today’s discussion, I will say this about Ohtani’s viability as an outfielder, should he find it difficult to return to the mound after what is now his second TJS. Fans who think that Ohtani is an inexperienced outfielder ought to remember that he played outfield in Japan and the only reason the Angel's decided to DH him is to keep him as healthy as possible so he could make as many starts as possible. Even if he can't return to being a pitcher, there is really zero reason to think that he can't return to the outfield on a regular basis for any team that signs him.
Similar doubts were expressed last season about whether or not Aaron Judge would be able to play center field - as fans seemed to forget that he was a center fielder in college and it turned out that Judg was easily athletic enough to man the position at an above average level. Thus, I have zero doubt that Ohtani could play a corner outfield position easily enough and I think his defense would actually be better than many might think.
Meanwhile, Lee represents the kind of gamble that the Yankees really aren't in a position to make right now. The Yankees desperately need oodles of left-handed and power and if they were able to field a lineup with both Bellinger and Ohtani, the Yankees offensive woes would be solved.
The Yankees should really be looking for middle of the order impact bats, so rolling the dice on a contact guy like Lee, who might or might not be able to adjust to Big League pitching is too much of a gamble for a team in as dire straits offensively as the Yankees now find themselves to be.
All this said, Hal Steinbrenner likely won't shell out for Bellinger AND Ohtani, so if the Yankees add one of the two, then they'll need a second outfielder. Lots of names are on the hot stove, with Kevin Keirmaier being mentioned along with a variety of trade ideas ranging from the Padres Juan Soto to the Cardinals Brendan Donovan and on to Alex Verdugo of the Red Sox. Would Lee stack up favorably to any of these players? Probably not.
It’s probably a lot more likely that the Yankees execute a trade in order to not only add an outfielder, but also as a means of helping the lineup get a little more left-handed. The only problem in doing this is that it will likely cost Gleyber Torres at a bare minimum and more than likely, Yankees excess pitching depth might also have to be burned. Therefore, if we’re subtracting Torres and adding an outfielder who isn’t nearly as productive of a hitter, then the Yankees will need to find some other way to improve the aforementioned clunker that their offense has become.
In one plausible scenario, there is merit to the idea of retaining Torres, now in his final year of team control, and simply signing two outfielders. However, I don’t think Hal Steinbrenner will back a plan like this up with the necessary bucks and it’s also well understood that the Yankeesa are looking to also upgrade their rotation and bullpen as well this offseason. Therefore, I do see a trade in the cards for the Yankees this offseason, as I think the team will specifically look to target at least one outfielder via trade, while also likely attempting to sign a single free agent outfielder as well.
This means that Lee to the Yankees via free agency isn’t likely happening. For the record here, I’m against acquiring a short term solution via a trade, so for example, count me out on Torres for Verdugo even though a deal like this would make the Yankees lineup more left-handed. With the Steamers projections now in, does it make sense to swap Torres (projected to post a .361 wOBA/123 wRC+ season with 25 home runs) for Verdugo (projected at .333 wOBA/106 wRC+ with 14 home runs? I don’t see this making sense at all personally.
If anything, I think if the Yankees do make a trade, I’d like to see them acquire a young, controllable outfielder with upside, who would help to balance the lineup and who might be capable of playing not only left field, but perhaps center field as well if needed. While I’m dreaming of a trade with the Cardinals and a Bellinger or Ohtani signing, I’d also be happy with a trade for Soto, so long as another outfielder like Bellinger was also acquired. Lee isn’t going to impact the roster enough and let’s face it, the Yankees need help badly.