Money not issue for Japan Series MVP in pursuit of MLB dream

November 3, 2015
South Korean baseball player Lee Dae-ho speaks at a press conference announcing his intent to play in Major League Baseball in Seoul on Nov. 3, 2015. (Yonhap)

South Korean baseball player Lee Dae-ho speaks at a press conference announcing his intent to play in Major League Baseball in Seoul on Nov. 3, 2015. (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — South Korean baseball slugger Lee Dae-ho, the reigning Japan Series MVP, said Tuesday that money won’t be an issue in the pursuit of his big league dream, adding he’d be willing to compete for any club that wants his service.

Lee, fresh off a second straight Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) title with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, announced his intent to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in a press conference in Seoul, Tuesday. He will exercise his option for 2016 and become a free agent, leaving a reported 600 million yen (US$4.9 million) on the table for next season.

The 33-year-old insisted he’d still like to play in the big leagues even if he won’t make as much money as he may in Japan.

“My dream is to reach the majors, and I am confident I can work harder to play better there,” he said. “A baseball player is happiest when he’s in uniform competing on the field. I will play for any club that wants me.”

The 191-centimeter (6-foot-3), 120-kilogram (265 pounds) player was a pitching prospect in high school but began his professional career in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) as third baseman. He has mostly spent his time as a first baseman and designated hitter of late.

Lee said he’d prefer to remain at first but added, “If a team wants it, I’ll take more practice on defense and do whatever it takes.”

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

With their backing, Lee will vie for big league interest with another South Korean player, Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes in the KBO. On Monday, the KBO asked the MLB to post Park for big league teams in a silent auction, giving MLB clubs four business days to submit their bids for the slugging infielder.

Lee and Park are similar types of players, with Park being four years younger. Both are big-bodied first basemen who can hit for power and average. Park, who has hit 52 and 53 homers in his last two KBO seasons, may have superior raw power, but Lee may be a more complete package at the plate

Lee said he doesn’t think the two players will necessarily have an impact on each other’s pursuit of a big league contract.

“Park Byung-ho is the best hitter and slugger in South Korea, but I don’t think we’ll hurt each other by being in the market at the same time,” Lee said. “The best case scenario would be for us to both make it to the majors next year and play well there.”

At a national team press conference later Tuesday, Park was tightlipped about entering the market with Lee. Both have been named to the South Korean team for the Premier 12, an inaugural international tournament scheduled to start Sunday.

“I’ve played against him when I was younger, and we’re on the national team together for the first time,” he said. “He is one of the best South Korean hitters, and I hope to learn from him. But as far as the posting process, I don’t have much to say.”

Park said he doesn’t think he’ll be necessarily competing with Lee in their pursuit of major league jobs.

“I think it’s more important for us to concentrate on doing the best we can,” he said. “Whereas Lee is a free agent, I have to go through the posting. Nothing has been decided for me, and it’s difficult for me to say anything further.”

Lee is also 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 said he’d expected all along that Choo would carve out a successful big league career because of his work ethic. Having only decided two days earlier that he’d try to play in the majors, Lee said he hadn’t yet had time to speak to Choo about playing across the Pacific.

“I know he went through a lot in the minors,” Lee said of the outfielder who’s had three 20-20 seasons in the majors. “Once I sign a contract, maybe I will get in touch with him and listen to his advice.”

Lee said he hopes to rely on the lessons he learned in Japan and used them to his advantage in the big leagues.

“I didn’t hit for such a high average in Japan, and with pitchers there throwing a lot of breaking pitches, I always tried to stay more patient than I was in Korea,” Lee said. “Pitchers in the majors will come at you. If I end up there, I will have to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.”