The biggest story in Detroit baseball this offseason is the major roster changes that Tigers general manager Al Avila foretold in October. He will be working towards a roster that is both younger and leaner and is also no longer “above the means” of the Tigers’ ownership group. While it will be a difficult goal to reach, it is one that Avila is dedicated to, as shown by the Cameron Maybin trade early in the offseason.
Shrewd action in the free agent market will be necessary if that endgame is to be achieved. One possible target that could help further those goals is first baseman Dae-ho Lee.
Who is he?
Lee is a 6’4, 287 lb. 34-year-old from Korea who was a superstar and fan favorite in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and Japanese Pacific League (JPPL), earning the nicknames “Big Boy” and “Pig Tiger.” He played from 2001-2011 with the Lotte Giants, spent 2012 and 2013 with the Orix Buffaloes, and 2014 and 2015 with the SoftBank Hawks. He signed with the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2016 season and spent the 16th year of his career in the United States. Lee made a decent first impression, proving to be a roughly league-average batter. After the season, however, he returned to Korea and is not guaranteed to return.
Why should we care?
Over the course of his career in Asia, Lee hit .303/.387/.514 while averaging 22 home runs per year. He also managed to post an impressive 711 walks compared to 998 strikeouts. While the KBO and JPPL are far more hitter-friendly leagues than in Major League Baseball, those statistics are still spectacular. A drop-off in performance is expected when imported players arrive in the pitching-dominated MLB. Lee did not underperform by any means, and continued to post decent power numbers in the United States. He hit 14 home runs and posted a respectable .175 isolated power (ISO), the same as Chicago slugger Jose Abreu. According to FanGraphs, the major league average ISO was just .140 in 2016.
If the Tigers trade either Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez, they will need a replacement. Odds are high that Avila will strive to find a wallet-friendly option, and Lee is just that. A career first baseman, he would not be a major liability on defense. Last year, Lee earned a base salary of $1 million with $3 million in incentives. A similar short-term, incentive-laden contract could lure him back to the United States. He has stated that the biggest factor in whether or not he signs will be playing time, and if he is needed on the Tigers’ roster, playing time will be a non-issue. Lee may also be able to play in the outfield in a pinch, but will be far below average if he sees time out there.
Lee is made much more appealing with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement pending. The old CBA is due to expire on the first of December, and a new one will be put in place in time for the 2017 season. According to reports, the implementation of a 26th roster spot is likely in the cards, the most likely of the potential changes that could be coming. If this does come to fruition, then Lee would be made more compatible with the Tigers’ roster because his addition would not require taking a roster spot away from a different bench player.
Why should the Tigers stay away?
While “Big Boy” was intended as an endearing name, it is accurate. Lee is a man of large girth, and is less likely to shed that huskiness due to his age. Obviously, this limits his defensive capabilities. Range could be an issue for Lee, particularly if he plays in the outfield at all. He is by no means a full-time option out there. There is no real precedent that he can play in either corner outfield position. Some players have been able to make the transition fairly easily, but not every case is a success. It’s possible — if not probable — that an experiment with Lee in the outfield could go down in flames.
Lee has shown good ethic throughout his career, and reinforced that fact in his post-season statement. A portion of that statement reads like this:
Early on, it was fun to come off the bench to pinch hit, but it started to hurt my pride later. I wanted to play more, but it’s entirely up to the manager how he runs the team. I have no hard feelings for manager Servais. If anything, I should have played better and tried harder.
While Lee’s work ethic is a positive, he may not be so keen on taking another bench role. This is his ideal position with the Tigers as currently constructed, but not necessarily one he would be happy to assume.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Probably not. Lee is an interesting cost-effective option if a major cog of the Tigers’ roster is traded. This would go a ways towards making a “younger and leaner” roster by adding multiple quality prospects to the system. However, his current fit (or lack of) will prevent him from being considered by the Tigers’ front office.