12:18pm: The Mariners have announced the minor league signing.
11:56am: The deal is done, with a physical already completed and an announcement expected in short order, according to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times.
10:51am: Korean first baseman Dae-ho Lee has long been rumored to be negotiating with MLB clubs, and it appears that a deal could be in the works with the Mariners. A report from Korean baseball analyst Michael Min (Korean language link) says that Lee is in agreement on a one-year contract with Seattle that could pay him up to $4MM. (Jee-ho Yoo of Yonhap conveys the information in English.)
If something gets finalized, though, it may only be a minor league pact, Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune suggests (Twitter links). In that scenario, Lee would presumably need to crack the MLB roster out of camp and reach some incentives to maximize the available earnings.
Lee, 33, declined a player option with Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in order to become a free agent and pursue an MLB opportunity. He is said to have been weighing offers from several MLB teams as well as his former employers in Nippon Professional Baseball. Because he is a true free agent with advanced professional experience, there is no posting fee or international spending cap involved in the deal.
After establishing himself in the Korea Baseball Organization, where he starred for the beter part of a decade, Lee moved to Japan for the start of the 2012 campaign. He’s been a steady producer there, generally mixing good on-base ability with a low strikeout rate and solid power. Last year, though, he took things to a new level, hitting 31 home runs and slashing .282/.364/.524 over 584 plate appearances.
It’s important to bear in mind, when weighing Lee’s numbers overseas against those carried by fellow Korean crossovers Jung Ho Kang and Byung-ho Park, that the NPB doesn’t feature the kind of unusually inflated batting lines found in the hitter-friendly KBO. Lee’s ..892 OPS last season was the fourth-best mark in the league. In fact, only eleven players reached the .800 threshold — including familiar names such as Wily Mo Pena, Cuban star Alfredo Despaigne, and Lee’s former teammate Nobuhiro Matsuda, who flirted with his own MLB bid this winter.
Ultimately, Lee is a hard player to peg, but obviously has shown enough with the bat to intrigue. He’s quite sizable and seems unlikely to see the field without a first baseman’s mitt, if he does more than DH. MLBTR’s Zach Links (Twitter link) recently asked a Korean scout for a comp for the veteran slugger. “Maybe Carlos Lee minus some power,” he was told. “It’s tough. He is not typical, that’s for sure.”
For Seattle, that skillset would seem to put the Korean star on track to pair up with Adam Lind in a first base platoon. He could also see time in the DH slot when Nelson Cruz slots in at right field. Regardless, the fit is clear, and Lee would figure to receive a fair number of plate appearances in part-time duty.
Notably, that role had seemed destined to go to former top prospect Jesus Montero, with former big leaguer Gaby Sanchez providing competition in camp. Instead, it seems, Montero may need to compete with Lee to earn his way onto the active roster and remain a significant part of the organization’s plans moving forward.