2022 KBO MVP Lee Jung-hoo signs with San Francisco Giants: reports

December 13, 2023

Former South Korean league most valuable player (MVP) Lee Jung-hoo has signed with the San Francisco Giants, reports claimed Wednesday.

New York Post columnist Jon Heyman tweeted Tuesday evening (U.S. local time) that Lee agreed to a six-year deal worth US$113 million. Other U.S.-based reporters tweeted out the information, though the Giants have yet to announce the signing. Reports claimed Lee, 25, has an opt-out clause after the fourth season, meaning he can become a free agent.

If it’s made official, the deal would be the biggest contract awarded to a posted KBO player, surpassing the six-year, $36 million pact signed by pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin with the Los Angeles Dodgers before the 2013 season.

In this file photo from Oct. 10, 2023, Kiwoom Heroes outfielder Lee Jung-hoo salutes the crowd at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul after a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Samsung Lions. (Yonhap)
In this file photo from Oct. 10, 2023, Kiwoom Heroes outfielder Lee Jung-hoo salutes the crowd at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul after a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Samsung Lions. (Yonhap)

The center fielder had been posted for Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs earlier this month after spending seven seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) with the Kiwoom Heroes. Lee had until 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 3 to sign a deal under the KBO-MLB posting rules.

Lee won the 2022 KBO regular season MVP award after leading the league in batting average (.349), hits (193), RBIs (113), on-base percentage (.421) and slugging percentage (.575).

Once the deal is made official, Lee is expected to address the Giants’ hole in the outfield while offering strong bat-to-ball skills that made him among the best hitters in the KBO.

He has a career .340 batting average, the highest mark in the KBO’s 41-year history among players with at least 3,000 plate appearances.

For his career, Lee has 383 walks and struck out only 304 times in 884 games.

He missed most of the second half of this year due to an ankle injury but posted a solid .318/.406/.455 line across 86 games, with 23 strikeouts and 49 walks. He batted just .218 in April, the lowest monthly batting average of his career, before batting .305 in May, .374 in June and .435 in July. He missed all of August and September, and made one final appearance in October, when he grounded out in his lone plate appearance.

The Giants’ general manager, Pete Putila, attended that game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, and was seen giving Lee a standing ovation, along with the rest of the fans in the stands, after the final at-bat.

Farhan Zaidi, Giants’ president of baseball operations, had told reporters in November that center field was going to be “a priority for us.”

“In center field, we’ve been average at best over the last few years defensively,” Zaidi said. “We have a pretty good pitching staff, we think. We have one of the lowest walk rates in baseball. We generate a lot of groundballs, and for us to really get the best out of the skills of our pitching staff, we need a really good defense, whether it’s infield or outfield defense.”

In 2023, the Giants’ outfield group struggled defensively, ranking 22nd among 30 MLB teams in defensive runs saved, a stat that measures the number of runs a player saved or cost his team relative to an average player, and 28th in outs above average, which looks at how many outs a player has saved.

In 2023, rookie Luis Matos logged the most games (57) and innings (438) in center field for the Giants, but he ranked 170th among 174 players who appeared in center field in outs above average.

In 76 games overall, Matos batted .250/.319/.342 with two home runs and 14 RBIs.

The Giants used 11 center fielders in 2023.

Represented by uber-agent Scott Boras, Lee had earlier been linked to the Giants and the New York Yankees, with the latter apparently pulling out of the race after trading for All-Star outfielder Juan Soto from the San Diego Padres.

After shipping out Soto, the Padres were also believed to be interested in signing Lee and reuniting him with his former Heroes teammate, the Gold Glove-winning infielder Kim Ha-seong.

If the deal becomes official, Lee would be the fourth Heroes to move to MLB via posting, joining Kang Jung-ho (Pittsburgh Pirates), Park Byung-ho (Minnesota Twins) and Kim.

Lee is the son of KBO legend Lee Jong-beom, who was nicknamed “Son of the Wind” for his blazing speed. In 1994, the senior Lee batted .393 with 84 steals to earn the regular season MVP honor. The Lees are the first father-son duo in KBO history to be voted MVPs.

The junior Lee isn’t considered a power hitter — his career high is 23 from 2022 but he has reached double figures in just one other season — but is a strong defender who can play all three outfield positions.

KBO teams receive a “release fee” if they lose a player to MLB through posting, depending on the guaranteed value of the player’s contract.

If the guaranteed value of the deal — not counting a signing bonus or incentives — is US$25 million or less, the release fee will be 20 percent of the contract. If the contract is worth between $25,000,001 and $50 million, the fee will be 20 percent of the first $25 million, plus 17.5 percent of any amount exceeding that $25 million.

If a player signs for more than $50 million, his former KBO team will receive 20 percent of the first $25 million ($5 million) and 17.5 percent of the next $25 million ($4,375,000), plus 15 percent of the amount exceeding $50 million.