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International Free Agent Profile: Dae-Ho Lee

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Dae-Ho Lee has his eyes set on playing in the United States in 2016. Would the veteran slugger be worth a roster spot on the Mets?

Dae-Ho Lee
Dae-Ho Lee
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Dae-Ho Lee was born in Busan, South Korea, in 1982, and went on to become one of the most successful players in the Korean Baseball Organization. Like so many other great stories, Lee's had 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. Lee still was in elementary school when his grandmother died, leaving the youngster with few positive parental figures.

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 [sic] of going astray and baseball was taking up all my energy." Before Lee's professional debut, the world got a display of what was to come in the 2000 18-U 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. With Lee standing at an imposing 6 feet 6 inches and weighing a hefty 250 pounds or so, the Giants' front office decided that he would better fit the team as a first baseman. Over the next two years, Lee hit .261/.336/.405 in limited playing time with a combined 12 home runs. Problems with his weight, his stats, and his manager complicated Lee's early tenure. However, by 2004, the youngster was more comfortable and had settled in, which began translating into on-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 Giants in the KBO All-Star Game, winning the game's MVP honors. All of this was a harbinger for things to come. In 2006, Lee finally came into his own and never looked back.

In the thirty-one-year history of the KBO until 2006, there had been only one offensive 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 when, in 2006, he became 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 enough to win the KBO pitching Triple Crown.

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

As good as he was, Big Boy stepped it up even more the following year. In 2010, Lee 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 that year, slugged a career-high 44 home runs, and drove in 111 RBI in 103 games. In addition, he led the league in OBP, slugging percentage, hits, and runs scored, giving Lee the illusive "Septuplet Crown."

He also broke the world record for most home runs in consecutive games. The previous record was eight consecutive games with a home run, a mark set by Dale Long (May 1956), Don Mattingly (July 1987), and Ken Griffey Jr. (July 1993). In August of 2010, Lee homered in nine straight games. His stellar performance won him the KBO MVP Award that year, this time beating out Ryu. Lee had a similarly outstanding year in 2011, when he hit .357/.433/.578 with 27 home runs (although again did not win the MVP).

Despite being voted the most popular player in the KBO at the end the season in a Korean Gallup poll, the slugger exercised his free agent eligibility, feeling he was up for a new challenge 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, Lee 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, as he hit .303/.384/.493.

At the conclusion of his second season with the Buffaloes, Lee had a decision to make: Where would he play in 2013? Would he re-sign with Orix? Would he join a second NPB team? Would he return to the KBO? Was he interested in playing for an MLB team? According to the Korea Herald, Lee met with representatives from the Boras Corporation a few times near the end of the season, fueling fire that he would attempt to make the jump to MLB. However, in the end, he elected to stay in Japan. After refusing the Buffaloes' offer—which amounted to roughly $8.1 million over two years—the slugger signed with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, inking a two-year deal with a player option for the 2016 season worth ¥900 million (roughly $7.5 million), with incentives bringing it up to ¥3 billion (roughly $24.9 million).

The 32-year-old seamlessly made the transition from the Buffaloes to the Hawks, hitting .300/.362/.454 in his first year with his new team. While Lee's home run total slipped slightly from 24 in 2013 to 19 in 2014, the small dip in power did not hurt his team badly, as Fukuoka clinched the Pacific League with a 78-60-6 record and went on to win the Japan Series, beating the Hanshin Tigers four games to one. Lee made his presence felt in the Series, going 6-for-18 with four RBI and a home run.

In his second year with the Hawks, Lee hit an impressive .282/.368/.524. He also erased any doubts about his power by belting 31 homers, his most in five years. The reigning champions once again won the Pacific League, going 90-47 and making it all the way to the Japan Series for the second consecutive year, this time facing the Yakult Swallows. The Hawks won the series four games to one to cap off back-to-back championships. Lee assumed the role of cleanup hitter in the Series after Seiichi Uchikawa, the 2014 Japan Series MVP, was ruled out with broken ribs. Lee excelled in Uchikawa's place, going 8-for-16 with eight RBI and two home runs, and winning the Japan Series MVP Award. It was actually the first time since 1996 that a foreign player won the award—Troy Neel of the Orix BlueWave won it that year—and the first Korean player to win the award in NPB history.

Days after the Japan Series ended, Lee declared his intent to play in MLB. At a press conference in Seoul, the 33-year-old said, "All baseball players dream of playing in the majors, and I'd like to pursue that dream." He continued, "If I can give 100 percent, like I've done throughout my career, I don't think it will be impossible." He noted that money is not necessarily an issue in his pursuit of playing baseball in the United States.

KBO

YEAR AGE G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2011 29 133 570 .357 .433 .578 27 63 60 2/2

NPB

YEAR AGE G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2012 30 144 601 .286 .368 .478 24 64 85 0/2
2013 31 141 593 .303 .384 .493 24 64 80 0/0
2014 32 144 625 .300 .362 .454 19 46 97 0/3
2015 33 141 584 .282 .368 .524 31 62 109 0/1

The Big Boy stands close to the plate, giving him excellent plate coverage, especially on balls on the outer half. According to pitchers who have faced him, the slugger can quickly turn on balls thrown inside. At the same time, he sometimes has difficulty catching up to hard fastballs and is especially vexed by pitches upstairs due to his big, sweeping, high leg kick and long swing plane. The lower quadrant is his sweet spot, and Lee likes golf-balling pitches thrown down there.

While he had success overseas, Lee is aware that he may have to adjust his hitting style to American pitching. In an interview, the big first baseman said, "I didn't hit for such a high average in Japan, and with pitchers there throwing a lot of breaking pitches, I always tried to stay more patient than I was in Korea. Pitchers in the majors will come at you. If I end up there, I will have to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch."

Lee's swings-and-misses might be a problem if he signs with an MLB club. His strikeout numbers progressively increased since his debut in Japan, with his 2015 total marking the highest in his fifteen-year career. Lee also eclipsed thirty home runs in 2015 for the first time, meaning that his increased strikeout rate may indicate a tradeoff of contact for more power—as opposed to his skills declining, or more in-depth scouting reports exploiting the holes in his game.

Defensively, Lee is limited. Though he has visibly slimmed down a bit, the first baseman is still listed at 286 pounds, which would make him the third-heaviest player on an active MLB roster, after Jonathan Broxton (305 lbs) and Kennys Vargas (289 lbs). As Patrick Newman of NPBtracker jokingly put it, "Lee Dae-Ho is a big league caliber hitter. He is fat, though."

While he can and has played first base, he will never win any Gold Glove Awards. He will be passable, and might be better suited as a DH, given those defensive deficiencies and the wear-and-tear playing the field might take on his body. Lee has specifically mentioned that he would prefer staying at first base, and would put in the necessary effort to become a better fielder, but is willing to play wherever the team that signs him wants him to.