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International Free Agent Profile 2014: Dae-Ho Lee

Dae-Ho Lee, the slugging star first baseman for the Orix Buffaloes might be eyeing Major League Baseball as his next stop in his baseball career. Would a union with the Mets make sense?

Is Dae-Ho Lee a more cost-efficient full-time replacement to Ike Davis?
Is Dae-Ho Lee a more cost-efficient full-time replacement to Ike Davis?
Chung Sung-Jun

Born in Busan, South Korea in 1982, Dae-Ho Lee went on to become one of the most successful players in the Korean Baseball Organization. Like so many other great stories, Dae-Ho Lee's has a sad beginning. His father died when he was a toddler, and his mother was negligent in her parental responsibilities, leaving his grandmother to raise him. When his grandmother died, Dae-Ho was in elementary school.

He turned to baseball as a way to cope with all of the loss and dysfunction in his life, and in doing so, discovered an outlet in which he excelled. In his own words, "I didn't have luxury of going astray and baseball was taking up all my energy." Before his professional debut, the world got a display of what was to come in the 2000 18U Baseball World Cup. In the competition, Lee hit .500 (15-30) and slugged three home runs.

In 2001, the Lotte Giants drafted Lee, as a pitcher. He only appeared in a handful of games, and a shoulder injury permanently put the kibosh on his pitching career. As fate would have it, though, the injury might have been a blessing in disguise. Standing an imposing 6'4" and weighing a hefty 250 pounds or so, the Giants front office decided that Lee would better fit the team as a first baseman. Over the next two years, he hit .261/.336/.405 in limited playing time with a combined 12 home runs. Problems with his manager, his weight, and his stats complicated his early tenure, but by 2004, the youngster was more comfortable and better settled in, and that began translating into on-the-field production.

The 22-year-old started 132 games that year and hit .248/.331/.441 with 20 home runs. The next year, he hit .266/.354/.452 with 21 home runs and represented the Lotte Giants in the KBO All-Star Game, where he won the All-Star Game MVP honors. All of this would only be a harbinger for what would be to come. Dae-Ho Lee finally came into his own in 2006 and never looked back.

In the thirty-one year history of the KBO, until 2006, there had been only one hitting Triple Crown winner: Man Soo Lee in 1984 (.340, 23 HR, 80 RBI). Dae-Ho Lee had his name etched forever into the record books with his 2006 season, becoming the second player in KBO history to lead the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. That year, Lee hit .336, socked 26 home runs, and drove in 88 runs. For as good as he was, the burgeoning superstar failed to win the KBO MVP Award. Instead, he placed second, behind current Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu, who went 18-6 with a 2.23 ERA and 204 strikeouts, good for the KBO pitching Triple Crown*.

(As an historical aside, I found this very interesting. I did some research and looked up some numbers, and players winning the batting and pitching Triple Crown in the same year has happened a few times in MLB history. In 1934, Lou Gehrig won the hitting Triple Crown and Lefty Gomez won the pitching Triple Crown; neither won the MVP Award, as Mickey Cochrane beat both out. Gehrig placed 5th and Gomez 3rd.)

Lee transformed from a good player to a great player and from a Lotte favorite to a KBO favorite. His obviously plus numbers alongside his image as role model are credited with the catapulting "Big Boy", as fans were now calling him, to superstardom. In 2007, Korean voters set a league record by logging 341,244 votes for Dae-Ho in the KBO All-Star Game. He deserved every vote, as he ended the season with a .335/.453/.600 batting line and 29 homers. His 2008 and 2009 seasons was more of the same. He ended the 2008 season hitting .301/.400/.478 with 18 home runs and hit .293/.377/.531 in 2009 with 28 home runs.

For as good as he had been, Big Boy stepped it up even more. In 2010, he notched another KBO Triple Crown, the second in his relatively short professional baseball career and the third in KBO history. The 28-year-old hit .367/.440/.681, slugged a career high 44 home runs, and drove in 111 RBI in 103 games. In addition, he also led the league in OBP, Slugging Percentage, hits, and runs scored, giving Lee the illusive "Septuplet Crown." That year, he broke the world record for most home runs in consecutive games. The record was home runs in eight consecutive games, a record held by Dale Long (May 1956), Don Mattingly (July 1987), and Ken Griffey Jr. (July 1993). In August, Lee hit home runs in nine straight games. He won the KBO MVP Award that year, this time beating out Ryu. His 2011 season was more of the same, as hehit .357/.433/.578 with 27 home runs, though again did not win the MVP.

Despite being voted the most popular player in the KBO at the end the season by a Korean Gallop poll, the slugger exercised his free agent eligibility, feeling he was up for a new challenge, one that his native home could not provide him. He sailed east to Japan, inking a two-year deal with the Orix Buffaloes for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The then 30-year-old showed no signs of slowing down in his new digs. In his first season with Orix, he hit .286/.368/.478, winning the NPB Home Run Derby, the Pacific League RBI crown, and the Pacific League Best Nine Award for first base. His 2013 season was even better, hitting .303/.384/.493.

His KBO stats are as follows:

2009 27 133 549 .293 .377 .531 28 51 65 0/0
2010 28 127 552 .364 .444 .667 44 61 77 0/2
2011 29 133 554 .357 N/A N/A 27 HR 63 60 2/2

His NPB stats are as follows:

2012 30 144 525 .286 .368 .478 24 64 85 0/2
2013 31 141 593 .303 .384 .493 24 64 80 0/0

The big man stands close to the plate, giving him excellent plate coverage, especially on balls on the outside part of the plate. According to pitchers who have pitched against him, the slugger is very flexible despite his big size, and can quickly turn on balls thrown inside. Like most Asian players, he utilizes a big, sweeping high leg kick and a long swing. As a result, he sometimes has difficulty catching up to fastballs with heat and is especially vexed by pitches upstairs, but he likes going after pitches downstairs and golf-balling them.

Does He Make Sense For The Mets?

The first question is, of course, does Dae-Ho Lee want to play baseball in North America? He has yet to comment on it, but speaking personally, I think he is the type of player who would enjoy the potential challenge. Among Korea's top baseball players, he could have very easily stayed with the Lotte Giants, continuing to put up record-setting stats as the biggest fish in a small pond. Instead, he accepted the challenge of the Orix Buffaloes.

In Japan, he has continued to post good numbers. While not the best, or necessarily elite, they are very, very good. With his only having a two-year deal with Orix, one could make the case to him that Japan has been conquered and America awaits, and that, given his age, it's either now or never. Apparently, Scott Boras thinks the same way I do, as he has reached out to the first baseman. According to the Korea Herald, Boras met with Lee about offering his services and coming to MLB.

Assuming he were interested, the next question pertains to need. Dae-Ho Lee would play first base for the Mets. Is there a need for a new first baseman? Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Josh Satin already have roster spots on the team. If Lee isn't seen to be an upgrade over them, why bother? Clint Hulsey of compared Lee to Hideki Matsui, another bat-only player, and concluded that if Matsui saw a nearly 35-point drop in his OPS+ when coming to America, the inferior bat of Lee would, too, and that Lee would be a sub-replacement level hitter as a result. Connor Jennings of painted a rosier picture, and calculated that if Lee were given 600 at-bats in the MLB, he would hit roughly .277/.341/.436 with 17 home runs. Looking at MLB first basemen over the past season, such numbers would be comparable to James Loney (.299/.348/.430, 13 HR) and Justin Morneau (.259/.323/.411, 17 HR).

In terms of money, Sports Hochi News has reported that the Buffaloes are interested in signing Lee for another two-year deal, worth roughly $7 million dollars. If he came to the U.S., he would likely get more than that, but I don't think that he would get too much more, even if Boras were representing him. A two- or three-year deal at an average annual value of about $5 million sounds reasonable, given his age.

Overall, I think Dae-Ho Lee would be an interesting pick-up, but there are a lot of secondary factors to consider. I would be happy with the Mets signing Lee if they decide to move on from Ike Davis. I would be happy with the Mets signing Lee if the team front office knows something that I don't that makes them believe that a combination of other in-house personnel—Duda, Satin, or Wilmer Flores—won't cut it at first. I would be happy with the Mets signing Lee if the team loses out on signing other potential players for first base. Those are a lot of ifs.