Free agent Lee Dae-ho departs for US in pursuit of MLB contract

December 7, 2015
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)

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)

INCHEON (Yonhap) — South Korean free agent slugger Lee Dae-ho left for the United States on Monday in pursuit of a big league contract.

Lee, 33, first announced his intent to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) on Nov. 3, only days after helping the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks capture their second straight Japanese league title and winning the Japan Series MVP.

He then opted out of his contract with the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) club, saying he wanted to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a major leaguer.

The former Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) MVP told reporters at Incheon International Airport that he has drawn interest from multiple big league teams.

“I heard (from my agent) four to five teams are showing interest,” Lee said. “I made a successful transition to Japanese baseball, and I don’t think I will have any big problem adjusting to MLB. I am pretty confident in my bat and also in my defense.”

Lee will head to the annual MLB Winter Meetings, which will open Monday, local time, in Nashville, Tennessee, for a four-day run

In the Japan Series, Lee batted .500 (8-for-16) with two home runs and eight RBIs to help the Hawks knock off the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in five games. He is the first South Korean to win the Japan Series MVP.

Lee played for the Lotte Giants in the KBO from 2001 to 2011, and then joined the Orix Buffaloes in the NPB in 2012. He played there for two seasons before moving to the Hawks.

After hitting 225 home runs in 1,150 games in South Korea, Lee belted 98 home runs in 570 games in Japan.

In the KBO, Lee won the batting Triple Crown in 2006 and 2010, and was voted the MVP in 2010 when he established career-highs with a .364 batting average, 44 home runs and 133 RBIs.

Lee was the three-time batting champion and two-time home-run king in South Korea.

In his first season with the Buffaloes, Lee batted .286/.368/.478 with 24 home runs and 91 RBIs. He matched the home run and RBI totals the following year, while raising his triple slash line to .303/.384/.493.

Last year, his powers numbers dipped to 19 homers and 68 RBIs for the Hawks, though he still hit .300.

In 2015, Lee set his NPB career-highs with 31 home runs and 98 RBIs in 141 games, and then enjoyed a productive postseason to win the Japan Series MVP.

Lee has signed on with Seoul-based Montis Sports Management Group, which in turn has teamed up with MVP Sports Group in the United States to represent the player. MVP Sports Group counts former big league MVPs Alex Rodriguez, Joey Votto and Albert Pujols among its clients.

Listed at 194 centimeters and 130 kilograms (6-foot-4 and 286 pounds), Lee was a lithe pitching prospect in high school before developing into a hulking slugger. He began his KBO career as third baseman but has mostly been first baseman and designated hitter of late.

Lee is childhood friends with Texas Rangers’ outfielder Choo Shin-soo. Both are from the southeastern port town of Busan, and competed for rival high schools as pitchers.

Lee is a similar type of player as Park Byung-ho, who recently signed a four-year deal worth US$12 million with the Minnesota Twins after getting posted by his KBO club the Nexen Heroes.

Both are big-bodied players who can hit for power and average. Park, who blasted 52 and 53 homers over the past two KBO seasons, may have more raw power, but Lee may be a more complete package at the plate. Park is four years younger than Lee.