KBO, South Korea’s baseball league, is known for a flashier style of play than MLB features. Players sell out on the fastball and pimp home runs in a way we just don’t see stateside, but Jung Hoo Lee is a little bit different. In many ways, he’s the ultimate contact hitter, hitting .340 and walking more than he’s struck out in seven years in the KBO. He’s going to be posted this winter, meaning all 30 MLB clubs can bid on the centerfielder, with a percentage fee going back to the Kiwoom Heroes from whoever the final bidder is.
2023 Statistics: 86 games, 387 PA, .318/.406/.455, 6 HR, 45 RBI, 139 wRC+
2023 was a tough season for Lee, as he battled injuries that sapped about half his season, and a decent amount of his power. His bat-to-ball skills were as good as ever, though, seeing him strike out in just 5.9 percent of plate appearances and he patrolled center field capably.
The question for any team that signs him is the delta between KBO and MLB, talent-wise. Comparative analysis puts the Korean league somewhere around the quality of Double-A, making Lee something of a tantalizing prospect more than a can’t-miss free agent. Like anyone at Double-A, you can look at standout tools and imagine them carrying over to the major league level, but there’s understandable concern about the whole being less than the sum of the parts.
In Lee’s case specifically, I think we can be confident that contact tool will play in the majors. If a Somerset outfielder were hitting .340 over as many plate appearances as Lee’s had, we would a high average, low strikeout hitter at the MLB level, even if projecting a .340 average is a little bit rosy.
Where we would realistically have concerns is on the learning curve. Ha-Seong Kim is the best KBO product in MLB today, and it took him about a season and a half to become the player he is now. There is an adjustment period for anyone coming to the MLB level, and a contract with Lee probably bakes in that the first season or so will be dedicated to getting him up to speed.
And that’s the thing most holding me back from getting too excited about Jung Hoo Lee. The Yankees have backed themselves into a win-now situation: Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole are in their primes, but they’re both north of 30 and you don’t generally get better as you get older. I’m confident in Anthony Rizzo coming back strong but he’s on the last year of his deal, and we have one more season of Gleyber Torres’ high-floor offensive contribution.
If we assume that it takes a full year or so to get Lee caught up to the major league level, we’re burning a pretty critical 2024. One reason why Juan Soto is such an attractive trade target is because you can pencil in production for next season alongside Judge and Rizzo and Torres. To me, Lee makes more sense for a team like Baltimore, where they’re entering the competitive window and can afford a season of lag time.
I’m actually fairly convinced Jung Hoo Lee will be a capable major leaguer. There’s just something about the bat to ball skills that I think give him a high floor and he fits in well at the top of a lineup. I’m just not sure it comes together in 2024, and the Yankees can’t afford to waste another year of their stars’ primes.