Crucial week for Lee Dae-ho’s MLB future

January 26, 2016
Free agent slugger Lee Dae-ho leaves for the United States at Incheon International Airport on Dec. 7, 2015, in pursuit of his first major league contract. (Yonhap)

Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho has yet to hook up with a Major League club. (Yonhap)

By Nam Hyun-woo

Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho’s destination, which has been up in the air this winter, is likely to be decided this week.

The 33-year-old Korean first baseman/designated hitter declared free agency at the end of last season in Japan and has been seeking a Major League Baseball (MLB) team throughout the offseason.

All the Korean baseball players who announced their intent for the majors this winter have seen an end to their bid ― whether through a move to the big league or a return to the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Lee is the only one who attended the annual MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, but is also the only one who hasn’t found a team.

With MLB’s open market being in its late stages, Lee is now training with his former KBO peers of the Lotte Giants in Arizona and is scheduled to return home Friday. It is expected that he will announce his plans upon his arrival.

Multiple reports suggest that three to four teams are negotiating with Lee’s agents. Min Hoon-ki, a writer and commentator covering the MLB and KBO, reported that “a one-year, $4 million is set as the Maginot Line,” citing an official from Montis Sports Management Group, Lee’s agency in Korea.

However, it is not a favorable timing for Lee as the MLB’s deadline for reporting position players will come in a month’s time. There have always been key February signings and the listed Lee as No. 7 of the top 10 bargain free agents still available last Friday, but clubs are may be questioning whether Lee can translate his power to the big league.

Another important date for Lee is Jan. 30, a soft deadline set by his former Japanese team Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks for Lee to decide whether he will spend some more years with the reigning Nippon Professional Baseball champions.

Last year, Lee had a career high season in his four-year NPB stint, launching 31 home runs and posting 98 RBIs in 141 appearances. He was more productive in the Japan Series, batting .500 with two home runs and eight RBIs to lead the Hawks to beat the Central League pennant holders, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. And that saw him being honored as the first Korean to be named the Japan Series MVP.

The Hawks have been wooing Lee to stay with them even though he announced his bid for the majors just several days after making them champions. The Hawks reportedly intend to pay some 1.8 billion yen for three years should Lee return to Japan.

The Hawks Chairman Sadaharu Oh is also active in wanting to hold onto Lee. Oh told Sports Nippon Tuesday that “Lee has played well for the team over the past two years. His staying with team will be the best for it. The beginning date of spring camp can be adjusted,” adding that “it is at manager’s own discretion.” The Hawks will start their spring training on Feb. 1.

The worst case scenario for Lee is ending up being an unregistered player, but the chances are slim, given the KBO allows free agents not to be affected by the league’s player reporting deadline, which is the end of this month.