S. Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho focused only on winning big league job

February 24, 2016
Lee Dae-ho, a South Korean slugger who signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners, chats with team coach Jim Pankovits during practice in Peoria, Arizona, on Feb. 22, 2016 (local time). Lee, 33, brushed aside the option of returning to Asia and said his full focus is on making it to the big leagues. (Yonhap)

Lee Dae-ho, a South Korean slugger who signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners, chats with team coach Jim Pankovits during practice in Peoria, Arizona, on Feb. 22, 2016 (local time). Lee, 33, brushed aside the option of returning to Asia and said his full focus is on making it to the big leagues. (Yonhap)

PEORIA, Arizona (Yonhap) — Having signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners, South Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho has an option to return to Asia — where he built an All-Star career — if his U.S. stint doesn’t pan out.

The 33-year-old first baseman/designated hitter said, however, he is only focused on winning a big league job, as he joined the Mariners’ spring training camp.

“I am only thinking about making the 25-man roster,” Lee said after his practice here in Arizona, where the Mariners will have their first full workout Thursday. “I don’t want to have any regret.”

Lee signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners earlier this month, with an invitation to spring training. He will make US$4 million if he makes the big league club but will be on a minor-league pay scale otherwise.

Lee also has an opt-out clause, which would allow him to declare free agency at the end of spring training instead of accepting a minor league assignment.

He left a lucrative offer to return to his former NPB club, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, for a third season, after winning two consecutive Japan Series titles with them. Lee also has an option to be back in the KBO, where he spent 11 years with his hometown club, the Lotte Giants.

Lee said he was “grateful” that the Hawks had given him the opportunity to return, but he wanted to pursue his dream of playing in the majors. He also insisted he “doesn’t have time” to worry about going back to Asia if things don’t work out here.

“I am going to go all-out in the United States,” he said. “I wanted the opt-out clause so that I could play for some other club in the majors.”

The Mariners already have an established big league first baseman in Adam Lind, who came over from the Milwaukee Brewers via an offseason trade. The left-handed hitter has long had trouble against left-handed pitching, and Lee will battle Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez and Stefen Romero to be Lind’s right-handed complement.

Lee said as much as he wants to do well and leave a strong impression, he doesn’t want to force himself too hard.

“First and foremost, I have to do the best I can, but I can’t afford to get hurt,” he said. “If I am forcing the issue at the plate or trying to do too much, then I’ll be losing the battle against myself. I will just stick to what I’ve been doing all along.”

Lee also said he wants to change people’s perception about his defense. The former high school pitcher has played third base and first base over his pro career, though he’s been mostly limited to DH duties in recent seasons. Lee is notoriously secretive about his weight, but he now looks much slimmer than his listed weight of 130 kilograms (286 pounds).

Lee said he is starting with a clean slate, now that he’s in an entirely new environment.

“In Korea and Japan, we started late and end late (during spring training),” he said. “Over here, we get to start early in the morning and finish up early. I enjoy coming out here early.”

Lee was one of four South Koreans to join a big league team, but three others — Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins, Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles and Oh Seung-hwan of the St. Louis Cardinals — all reached major league contracts with better job security than Lee.

“They all signed good deals, and I am just a minor leaguer,” Lee said, laughing. “I hope we will all have good seasons and get together at the end with smiles on our faces.”

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