Dae-ho Lee, a Korean first baseman who spent the last two seasons playing for Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, has declined playing for the Hawks in 2016. He made the announcement Tuesday, setting up a free agency bid as Major League Baseball entered its official offseason.
This is an international prospect that the Oakland Athletics must pursue.
Lee is taking a fresh Japan Series MVP award with him into the offseason as he courts teams in the United States. He is coming off of the strongest campaign of his career, as he slashed .282/.368/.524 for an OPS of .892. This is an impressive body of work at the plate that includes 31 home runs.
Don’t forget that Lee is an impressive defensive first baseman as well, despite his heavy 6-foot-3-inch and 265 pound build. In 2015, he maintained a .993 fielding percentage through 54 games, and he accomplished playing 71 games at first base without a single error in 2014.
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Surely somebody coming off of that kind of season would be too expensive for the Athletics, right?
There are a couple of factors in play that dispel the idea that Lee is too expensive for Oakland. The first, as MLB Trade Rumors noted, is that Lee is a free agent this year. That means that Major League teams that show interest will not have to pay a posting fee for his contract if they decide to sign him. This will lower the overall cost of negotiating a contract with him.
The second factor is that Lee’s Major League ambitions have less to do with money and more to do with a personal goal to play in Major League Baseball. The Korea Times reported that he is walking away from a 600 million yen (or US$4.9 million) opportunity to continue playing with Fukuoka SoftBank, and that he fully understands that that is a sum of money that no Major League team will offer him for a single season.
In the Korea Times article, Lee elaborated on his ambitions, saying “My dream is to reach the majors, and I am confident I can work harder to play better there … A baseball player is happiest when he’s in uniform competing on the field. I will play for any club that wants me.”
Lee represents a team element that the successful 2012-2014 Athletics had that the 2015 Athletics did not have, and that is a consistent power-hitting first baseman. Chris Carter and Brandon Moss played that role effectively during the A’s last three post-season runs. Without them, the 2015 Athletics turned to rookie Mark Canha, who had great moments but was inconsistent, and Ike Davis, who was only able to start 61 games at first base due to injuries.
Consider the fact that Moss was worth 22 more runs than a replacement level player in 2014. In 2015, Davis scored a -3 in this area. This is a significant chunk of offense that the Athletics desperately miss. Canha did prop up the A’s at first base slightly with 11 more runs than a replacement level player, but that is still a long way from an intimidating hitter.
The best part is that the A’s can afford Lee right now, and they can afford to sign him for three years so that he is part of 2017 and 2018 Athletics teams that will surely be more competitive than they will be in 2016.
Jung Ho Kang’s contract in Pittsburgh is a good benchmark to use for this. The Pirates signed Kang for $2.5 million in 2015, and they owe him $8.25 million over the next three seasons with a $5.5 million option for 2019. Kang was a solid addition to the Buccos and he provided tangible results in 2015.
Lee can be that guy in Oakland, and he’ll be cheaper than Kang. Firstly, Lee is 33 years old whereas Kang was 28 when the Pirates signed him. Secondly, first basemen are less of a commodity than outstanding defensive middle-infielders that also hit for power. Oakland can offer Lee a three year deal for less money than they paid Tyler Clippard for one season, and they can do it in a way that makes him part of a plan that includes calling up the top prospects in 2017.