‘Just to see one at-bat’: Why SF gave Lee Jung-hoo the highest contract in the A’s organization

The San Francisco Giants, who have never had much of a relationship with a Korean major leaguer, have embraced Lee Jung-hoo (25), and it’s an unprecedentedly large deal for an Asian beast.

John Heyman of the New York Post and Mark Finesand of MLB.com reported on their social media accounts on Nov. 13 (KST) that Lee signed a six-year, $113 million (about 14.83 billion won) contract with San Francisco. The deal includes an opt-out after four seasons.

The $113 million total is the largest contract for a Korean player to reach the major leagues through the posting system. The previous record was set in late 2012 when Ryu Hyun-jin, 36, signed a six-year, $36 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In baseball, Lee’s close senior, Kim Ha-seong, 28, signed a four-year, $28 million (about 36.7 billion won) contract with the San Diego Padres ahead of the 2021 season.

Even in Japan, this amount of money is rare. The previous record was set in 2013 when Masahiro Tanaka (now Rakuten) signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees. As far as baseball players are concerned, Masataka Yoshida, 30, who joined the Boston Red Sox ahead of this season, had a five-year, $90 million (approx. KRW118.2 billion) deal, which Lee surpassed.

San Francisco has been a favorite to sign Lee Jung-hoo. The team sent a team manager-level scout to observe Lee several times from spring training in Arizona this year. During the KBO season, the team followed Lee closely at home and away, including at Gocheok Sky Dome and Gwangju-Kia Champions Field. During Kiwoom’s final home game of the 2023 season on Oct. 10 at Gocheok Samsung Electronics, Lee came to the plate for only one at-bat, but San Francisco general manager Pete Putilla personally came to the game to applaud Lee before his return from injury.

Alex Pavlovich of NBC Sports Bay Area recently reported, “San Francisco executives went to see Lee a couple times this year. San Francisco is going to be very involved with Lee.” An agent also told The Athletic, “Putilla didn’t go to Korea to see Lee’s one at-bat. But it will move him. He was a superstar there, and he’ll have a chance to sign with a team that treats him like a star player.”

This is because San Francisco is a team that needs to improve at the plate. San Francisco went 79-83 (.488 winning percentage) in 2023, good for fourth place in the National League West. After winning a franchise-record 107 games just two years ago and preventing the Dodgers from winning back-to-back division titles, the Giants lost two more games this year after posting exactly a .500 winning percentage last year. The team fired manager Gabe Kepler after the season, especially at the plate, where they underperformed. Their team batting average (.235) was last in the National League, and their OPS (.695) was below average (.740). Wilmer Flores, with 23 home runs and an OPS of 0.863, was the only bright spot in the lineup, but overall, the offense seemed to have sunk. That’s when they turned to one of the best hitters in the KBO, Lee Jung-hoo.

The good news for Lee is that San Francisco’s new manager, Bob Melvin, is no stranger to Asian players. Melvin began his managerial career in Seattle in 2003 and went on to win 1517 games in his long career with the Arizona Diamondbacks (2005-2009), Oakland Athletics (2011-2021), and San Diego (2022-2023). He worked with Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle and Darvish Yu in San Diego, most notably developing Kim Ha-Sung into the first Asian Gold Glove infielder.

San Francisco was the first major league team to sign an Asian player. They made history in 1964 when they called up Masanori Murakami from the Nankai Hawks (now SoftBank), where he was training with the club’s minor league team. Since then, several Japanese players such as Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Keiichi Yabu, and Norichika Aoki have played for the club, but there hasn’t been a Korean big leaguer for a while. The likes of Song Seung-jun, Kim Sun-woo, and Lee Hak-joo spent time in the minor leagues, but were never called up. 랭크카지노

The first Korean player to play for San Francisco was Hwang Jae-gyun (36-KT Wiz). Signed by San Francisco after becoming a free agent in late 2016, he made his big league debut on June 29, 2017, against Colorado, batting fifth and playing third base, with a solo home run to left-center off Kyle Freeland in the sixth inning.

However, Hwang hasn’t been able to stay consistent. After batting .154 (8-for-52) with one home run, five RBIs, and a .459 OPS in 18 games in the majors, he was sent down to the minors in early August and was not recalled, returning to the KBO after the season. Hwang remained San Francisco’s only Korean-American big leaguer until this season.
After joining the Nexen Heroes (now Kiwoom) with the first overall pick in the 2017 KBO Draft, Lee played steadily for the organization for seven seasons, finishing his career with a .340 batting average, 65 home runs, 515 RBI, 581 runs scored, 69 doubles, a .407 on-base percentage, a .491 slugging percentage, and a .898 OPS in 884 games. He has the best batting average among active players with more than 3,000 career at-bats. In 2022, he won the MVP award after hitting .349 with 23 home runs, 113 RBIs, and a .996 OPS. The good news is that he’s been able to consistently hit for power while maintaining his ability to make contact.

This season, however, he was limited to 86 games due to injury, and he hit .318 with six home runs, 45 RBIs, and an OPS of 0.861. After getting off to a slow start, hitting just .218 in the month of April, Lee followed that up with monthly batting averages of .305 in May, .374 in June, and .435 in July. He eventually broke into the triple digits on June 11 and maintained a steady pace. However, on July 22, he suffered an ankle injury against Sasik Lotte that landed him on the operating table, and he ended the season with a fan service appearance against Gocheok Samsung Electronics on October 10.

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