Doubtless in Seattle: Lee Dae-ho sees glass half full in minor league deal

February 5, 2016
South Korean baseball player Lee Dae-ho speaks to reporters at Incheon International Airport on Feb. 5, 2016, after signing a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners. (Yonhap)

South Korean baseball player Lee Dae-ho speaks to reporters at Incheon International Airport on Feb. 5, 2016, after signing a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners. (Yonhap)

By Yoo Jee-ho

INCHEON (Yonhap) — He might not have signed the major league deal that he’d earlier envisioned, but South Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho, who recently joined the Seattle Mariners on a minor league contract, said Friday he’s seeing the glass half full.

The first baseman/designated hitter will have to battle for a big league job when the Mariners’ position players report to spring training in three weeks. It may not be what the 2015 Japan Series MVP, who’d earlier won a regular season MVP in South Korea, had in mind when he first announced his intention to try out for the majors last November, but Lee said he will embrace his new challenge.

“I’ll have to start fresh and get into the competition,” he told reporters at Incheon International Airport. “When you’re at the top, there’s pressure to perform consistently at a high level. Now, I just have to do my best, and I can only go up from here. It’s a new league and a new challenge. I am excited and confident.”

The Mariners announced this week they inked the 33-year-old to a one-year deal, reportedly worth up to $4 million with incentives.

Despite speculation that he wanted a richer, longer deal, Lee said he actually wanted a one-year deal from the get-go so that he could prove his doubters wrong in his first year in the United States.

“I didn’t think they valued what I’d accomplished in Korea and Japan,” he said. “But I felt it could actually work in my favor down the road, because if I do well in my first season, then it will raise my stock and lead to a better situation.”

He said he didn’t hear about a minor league deal from the Mariners during the negotiations, but they did tell him that they wanted a right-handed batter who could play first base and have him compete with Adam Lind, a left-handed hitting first baseman with a poor track record against southpaws.

“I won’t be playing for anyone else but for myself,” Lee said. “If I can stick to what I’ve been doing all along, I think I will have desired results.”

Lee played his past four seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the last two with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He enjoyed his most productive NPB season in 2015 with the Hawks, hitting 31 home runs, along with 98 RBIs, both career highs, in 141 games. Lee left a reported 600 million yen ($5.1 million) on the table in Japan to chase his first big league job.

The Hawks held out hopes until the last minute that Lee would return for a third season, but the player said he didn’t want to give up on his major league dream.

“I know some people see it as a bad deal for me, but my job is to compete and play as hard as I can,” Lee said. “If I have a good spring and make the Opening Day roster, then I can call myself a major leaguer.”

Lee, looking much slimmer than his listed weight of 130 kilograms (286 pounds), is the fourth South Korean to sign with a big league club this offseason, after first baseman Park Byung-ho (Minnesota Twins), outfielder Kim Hyun-soo (Baltimore Orioles) and right-hander Oh Seung-hwan (St. Louis Cardinals).

They’re joined by three incumbent big leaguers: left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers, infielder Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates and outfielder Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers. Lee and Choo played on the same elementary school team in the southern port city of Busan. The Mariners and the Rangers will meet each other 19 times during the regular season, including for the Opening Day.

“I started playing baseball because of Shin-soo, and now I’ll try to do what he’s done in the majors,” Lee said of the veteran outfielder coming off his fourth 20-homer season. “I didn’t get a chance to see him in the States, but hopefully, I’ll be able to see him at the start of the season and get some advice from him. He’s reached the top of his profession, and I’ll do my best to catch up.”

Before Japan, Lee played for the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) from 2001 to 2011. He enjoyed his first 20-homer season in 2004. He went on to hit at least 21 in six of the next seven seasons, including a career-best 44 in 2010. During that season, Lee homered in a record nine consecutive games.

Lee won the KBO batting Triple Crown — league leader in batting average, home runs and RBIs — in 2006 and in 2010. He hit 225 home runs in 1,150 games in the KBO with a .309 career average from 2001 to 2011, and added 98 home runs in 570 games across four seasons in Japan.

Lee will try to become the fifth South Korean to go through the KBO and the NPB before reaching the majors, and the first position player to do so.

Lee will be joining a Mariners club that finished fourth among five clubs in the AL West last season at 76-86, while scoring 656 runs to rank 13th among 15 AL clubs. They had the AL’s third-worst batting average with .249 but did hit 198 home runs to rank fifth in the league, despite playing their home games at the pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.