San Francisco Giants free-agent profile: Jung Hoo Lee – The Athletic

MLB
Here we go again. Another perfect free-agent fit for the San Francisco Giants. If this seems like a repeat, it’s because Blake Snell was the perfect fit (except, hold on), and then Cody Bellinger was the perfect fit (except, hold on). This is another entry in the perfect-fit genre (except, hold on).
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Design a perfect player for the Giants as an experiment. But do it in the classic format of role-playing games, where you’re allotted a certain amount of points to distribute. Here are the categories in this Dugouts and Dragons game:
• Athleticism
• Positional fit
• Youth
• Power
• Star potential
• Overall baseball skills
You’re rolling the dice, dropping the lowest number and adding the remainder. This means you’ll have some categories that don’t do as well, and some that do.
Today, we’re going to talk about a player with athleticism, positional fit, youth, star potential and overall baseball skills. And, considering he’s just 25, the power he’s already shown outside of the major leagues might just be the start. He’s the perfect fit for the Giants (except, hold on).
Jung Hoo Lee, a 25-year-old outfielder was posted by the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes on Monday. He’s available. The signing team would pay a percentage of the overall contract to the Heroes, and they can negotiate with him now.
Former KBO MVP Jung Hoo Lee has reportedly been posted by the Kiwoom Heroes.
Where will the 25-year-old outfielder land? pic.twitter.com/Kyb4lXD0Ri
— MLB (@MLB) December 4, 2023

Does he fit with the Giants? Of course he does.
Except, hold on …
Imagine if the Giants hit the jackpot on a fresh, new, unsullied international superstar. They’ve had a lot of success, on an individual and team level, since they moved to San Francisco, but there hasn’t been a lot of international excitement since Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda. Other teams have enjoyed the services of Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Yu Darvish, Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, the list goes on and on.
The Giants’ biggest international free agent splash since Osvaldo Fernández signed before the 1996 season might be … Daniel Carbonell? That’s excluding teenagers, with supposed proximity to the majors factored in.
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Lee could rule this city. It’s a baseball town that’s primed for it. It’s a fan base that takes to players, and it takes to them quickly. Hunter Pence arrived from Philadelphia and never left, in part because of the instant love. Every time a Giants prospect comes up, from Kevin Frandsen to Tyler Fitzgerald, there’s a buzz that can’t be ignored. There were Melk Men after a few weeks. Melk Men.
Lee has been a young, dynamic player in the KBO, with exceptional bat-to-ball skills. Reports on his defense in center field range from “can handle center, no problem” to “future corner outfielder,” but don’t sleep on those bat-to-ball skills. This is a fan base that would be way more excited about a .300 hitter than a 20-homer hitter. Check out this list of players who have hit .300 and qualified for the batting title in a full season during the Oracle Park era:
Barry Bonds
Buster Posey
Jeff Kent
Pablo Sandoval
Rich Aurilia
Randy Winn
Marquis Grissom
By contrast, 19 players have hit more than 20 home runs in a season for the Giants since then, from David Bell to Kevin Pillar. No, if there’s anything this team is craving, it’s bat-to-ball skills. It’s balls in play and singles through the 6-4 hole. The Giants want a Wee Willie Keeler who can hit ’em where they ain’t. The most recent Giants team was built on swings and misses, but without the typical benefits that make up for it. Lee is a .340 career hitter in Korea. He’s walked more than he’s struck out, which is even more impressive when you remember that he’s been in the league since he was 18.
Don’t sleep on his power potential. It looks pretty when it works.If the power plays at all in the majors — 15 homers, say — the bat control gives him a strong chance at being a perennially helpful player.
Lee is just 25, though. Maybe there are more dingers in there. Maybe the Giants could have their base-hit cake and eat their extra-base-hit cake too. Maybe he discovers a next level of power as he enters his physical prime. The downside in that scenario would still be a rather useful player, but the upside is a star.
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Lee’s father was a star in Korea, nicknamed “The Son of the Wind” because of his speed. Lee’s nickname then, unsurprisingly, is “Grandson of the Wind,” even though he’s not exactly a true burner on the basepaths. Don’t expect him to steal 30 bases in the majors. But he comes from an impressive baseball lineage, and he’s been around the game his whole life.
The Giants do baseball lineage well. There was Moises Alou, whose dad played for the Giants, and there was Robb Nen, whose dad, Dick Nen, also played in the majors. Not sure if there are any other Giants players whose father also played baseball, but that’s a research project for another time. There’s a comfort that comes with the knowledge that a player has been around the game, at the highest levels, his whole life.
The Giants have been scouting Lee since last February, at the very least. They would love for this to work. He can be a helpful player, but he can also become a how-did-we-miss-him star for other teams over the next few years.
In a simple, easy world, this would work for the Giants. In a complicated, annoying world, something this simple and easy should work.
On June 28, 2017, Jae-gyun Hwang hit a home run for the Giants. It was his first and last major-league homer, but it was a fun homer when it lasted, filled with dreams of cotton candy and international superstardom. A month later, Hwang’s major-league career was over.
There’s a postscript to the Hwang story that you might not be aware of. He’s been pretty danged good in the KBO, and he’s still going. He just finished his age-35 season with a .295/.366/.413 line, and he had three consecutive 20-homer seasons in the KBO after leaving the Giants. He’s a good player. Maybe all he needed was more time on a major-league roster to settle in, but we know for sure that he’s a talented player who can do more than the average KBO player, given the chance.
This isn’t to suggest that Lee is Hwang, and Hwang is Lee, because of where they were born. It’s just that there aren’t that many statistics that are harder to parse than KBO stats. It’s a league without Yu Darvish-type pitchers. There’s no Yoshinobu Yamamoto to be found in the KBO free-agent market, and there never really has been. The most recent success story from the KBO was Merrill Kelly, and I’m not sure if that’s a repeatable skill set to count on for any pitcher.
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Which is all to say that bat-to-ball guys look a lot better when the trickiest fastballs are thrown by Merrill Kelly. Nothing against Kelly — he’s good at his job, and the Diamondbacks are thrilled to have him — but if he’s among the top velocities and fastballs in a league, high-contact guys should thrive. There are no guarantees that Lee will thrive against the tricky mid-90s stylings of Lance Lynn, much less someone in the upper 90s, like a healthy Walker Buehler.
This is an inexact science. Baseball America has pegged Lee as an instantly successful leadoff hitter. The more skeptical describe a glove that’s suited for a corner and a bat that’s best used in center. As in, a perfectly wrong fit for what the Giants (and most teams) are looking for on an eight-figure deal.
The contact has been hard for Lee, according to The Athletic’s Keith Law, who ranked him No. 10 on his free-agent rankings. But if the homers don’t come, it’s not like Lee has Vince Coleman-type speed to make up for the ultra-low homer rates. There’s most definitely a leap of faith that comes with his defense up the middle, too. If he can hit .280/.360/.440 with plus defense in center.
Imagine a guy hitting .260/.330/.340 with kinda-sorta-okay defense in left field. Now imagine that guy on a guaranteed contract for several seasons. Seems like a drag. There are red flags with Lee’s profile, and you don’t have to come up with an implausible doomsday plan to see how this might not work out.
You need to trust the glove, and you need to trust the bat. No whoopsies. If you sign Lee for $90 million, you’d better be danged sure he’s a superstar or close to it.
The Giants have looked into this Lee fella quite a bit. If they trust the analysis of their scouts, I’m in.
If that feels like a cop-out, that’s because it is. But we’re talking about a player coming from a league where Giants Legend Shaun Anderson did well last season. “Can the Giants’ new, expensive hitter get reliably clutch hits off Shaun Anderson?” is a question I can’t answer. I shouldn’t have to answer it. They can answer it. And if they sign Lee, that means they’re feeling confident his skills might translate to the modern game.
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I’m in if the Giants are in, in other words.
That’s the metric. Not his slash line or OPS in Korea, but if the Giants’ scouts and quants have decided, yeah, this will work. He’s 25, people. Twenty-five! 
And he might be really, really good. Seems like a player and storyline to follow for a week or three.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP
Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH
Matt Chapman, 3B
Blake Snell, LHP
Cody Bellinger, OF/1B
(Photo of Lee from the WBC: Yuki Taguchi / WBCI / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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Grant Brisbee is a staff writer for The Athletic, covering the San Francisco Giants. Grant has written about the Giants since 2003 and covered Major League Baseball for SB Nation from 2011 to 2019. He is a two-time recipient of the SABR Analytics Research Award. Follow Grant on Twitter @GrantBrisbee

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