Among the many interesting moves the Seattle Mariners have made this offseason, the signing of Dae-ho Lee went under the radar. Lee was signed to a minor league deal, with an invitation to Spring Training, and an honest chance to win the backup first baseman job behind Adam Lind. He had an opt-out clause built in – as many veterans do – and over the last weekend, the Mariners finally made their move, by releasing his main competition in Jesus Montero. That more or less made it official: Dae-ho Lee is the guy.
I love it. We already know what we had in Montero; he’s a guy who will hit in the low .200s and show off a small amount of power against left-handed pitching, while almost never walking, and not being super-great defensively. Montero is who he is, and to expect him to make some huge leap in production is unrealistic and childish. If you believe there’s a .300 hitter with 30 homers in Jesus Montero, you might as well believe that Santa Claus is real and the Easter Bunny shits colored eggs.
Now, there’s a very real possibility that Dae-ho Lee won’t be any better. If we’re talking ceilings and floors, Lee’s floor is Montero’s whole house. The difference here is that Lee’s ceiling is WAY higher than anything we could reasonably expect from Montero.
That isn’t to say we should be looking at Lee as an MVP candidate. He’ll be 34 years old in June. Right now, he’s slotted to play behind Lind, as I mentioned earlier, which means he’s primarily going to face left-handed pitchers, which means if all goes according to plan, he’ll start around 1/3 of the Mariners’ games this year. And, you know, you can’t talk about the guy without mentioning that he’s never played an inning of meaningful baseball in the Major Leagues. He’s got 11 years of experience in the Korean Baseball Organization, and another 4 years of experience in Japan. And, if you look at his numbers, you’ll notice an uptick in strikeouts, which is an indicator of a player experiencing the limitations of his age. It’s very possible that he will come over here and struggle, as the competition increases.
In Spring Training this year, he’s only got 4 extra base hits in 51 at bats, with a Montero-esque batting average. Take that with a grain of salt, but it’s information nevertheless.
Here’s why I like the move to keep him on the roster and get rid of Montero. For starters, he’s a veteran. He’s played at a high level as a professional, and he’s done very well for himself in various international competitions, including the Olympics. So, as they say, the stage shouldn’t be too big for him. I wouldn’t expect the pressure to get to him the way it would a younger player. We’ve all seen how the mental aspect of the game has eaten up players like Montero and countless others throughout the years. So, when we get to Safeco Field, for instance, and he’s looking at the ominous, cavernous outfield, I don’t think he’s going to crumble like so many other right-handed power hitters who’ve come through here.
There’s also a pretty good track record of players coming over here from South Korea and Japan and doing well. I won’t dismiss their leagues out of hand, even though it’s pretty apparent that the level of competition in the MLB is higher. While there isn’t a huge number of Asian players doing well over here, the best tend to make the move work. Lee has been a great baseball player for many years; I’d say he’s earned the title as one of the best South Korea has to offer. In that sense, it doesn’t sound crazy to me that he could come over here and continue to play at a very high level.
In the end, isn’t it all just baseball? Dae-ho Lee has a talent for hitting a baseball. He’s hit for power (in his prime years, he hit anywhere from 18-44 homers every season), he’s hit for a good average (career .303, with his best season seeing him hitting .364), and even though his strikeouts may be on the rise, he has always walked a good amount. On top of it all, he’s got 4 Golden Glove awards, which means he’s no slouch in his other duties. Granted, he probably saw a lot more fastballs on the other side of the Pacific than he will here (just like players in Triple-A over here, for what it’s worth), but it’s still See Ball, Hit Ball at its core. Once he understands how pitchers are trying to attack him, I’m sure he’ll adjust accordingly and see a reasonable amount of success in the process.
Again, we’re talking about a bench player. A backup first baseman. I don’t want to put all the pressure in the world on him. It’s not Dae-ho Lee or Bust. If he flames out, that won’t mean the end of the Mariners’ season. It will just be another prospect that didn’t work out. But, if he does well, it could be a huge lift for this team. Who knows? Maybe if he does well, he eats into some of those DH at bats while Cruz plays the outfield. Maybe he even cuts into some of Lind’s at bats if he struggles. And, heaven forbid if there’s an injury and he’s forced to play everyday, I feel a lot more confident with Lee in there (someone who has been great in the recent past) than someone like Montero (who has never really made an impact at the Major League level).
This is one of those stories you love to read about, coming out of Spring Training. I’ll be hoping for the best. I think it’d be awesome for a guy like Lee, getting his first shot in America, to take the league by storm.