Korean slugger Dae-ho Lee recently returned home after his first season in the Majors and spoke to reporters at Incheon International Airport in Korea, revealing that manager Scott Servais and second baseman Robinson Cano have already informed him that they hope he’ll return for a second season with Seattle in 2017 (via the Korea Times). And Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reports that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has confirmed his desire to re-sign the 34-year-old slugger as well, citing a lack of quality right-handed platoon bats on the open market.
However, while Lee sounds open to returning to Major League Baseball, he stressed to reporters that playing time will be a major factor in his decision. Seattle seems likely to give lefty swinging Dan Vogelbach, acquired in the July trade that sent southpaw Mike Montgomery to the Cubs, every opportunity to establish himself in the Majors next season. That could leave Lee in a part-time role once again if he returns to the Mariners, which may prompt him to look elsewhere.
“Playing time is an important factor to consider when choosing a team,” Lee said (via the aforementioned Korean Times link). “…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.”
Lee, 35 next June, was a superstar in both Korea and Japan before testing international free agency but had to settle for a minor league deal and a $1MM base salary with incentives this past winter in order to prove himself to Major League clubs. He succeeded in doing so, though, hitting .253/.312/.428 with 14 home runs in just 317 plate appearances despite calling the pitcher-friendly Safeco Field his home. Lee did strike out at a higher clip against right-handed opponents (25 percent) than left-handed opponents (22 percent), and his overall production against righties (.244/.292/.407) was weaker than his output when holding the platoon advantage (.261/.329/.446). That said, Lee’s overall offense was better than the league average, although he faded in the final months of the season after getting off to a strong start.
A contending club may not leap to sign Lee as its starting first baseman or DH, but it’s easy to envision him once again drawing interest in a bench or platoon capacity. It’s also not out of the question that a rebuilding club could look to plug Lee into a more regular first base/designated hitter role as an affordable source of pop. He did slug at a 26- to 27-homer pace in a pitcher-friendly setting this past season, and neither Ultimate Zone Rating (+1.8) nor Defensive Runs Saved (-3) felt that his glovework through 622 innings was a significant detriment. Alternatively, if he wishes to continue playing, I’d imagine there would be plenty of interest from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization, though Lee did specifically note that he “learned a great deal from playing with good players on a big stage,” in Major League Baseball.