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A reader asked me recently why Tampa Bay Rays shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee wasn't on my preliminary Top 50 Hitters prospect list for 2013. Here's my current take on Lee.
I haven't seen him in person this year, although I hope to do so in the Arizona Fall League in early November. When I've seen him in past seasons, he's always looked very impressive on defense, reliable on routine plays while also showing a strong throwing arm, soft hands, and above-average range. He also runs quite well and stole 37 bases this year in 46 attempts for Double-A Montgomery.
The rest of his offensive game will determine whether Lee is a future regular or not. He hit .261/.336/.360 this year in Double-A, with 15 doubles, 10 triples, four homers, 51 walks, and 102 strikeouts in 475 at-bats. His wRC+ was 96. These aren't great numbers, but they are certainly improved compared to what he did in 24 games in Double-A in 2011 (.190/.272/.310, 56 wRC+).
Overall, in 140 career Double-A contests, he's hit .249/.325/.351 with 62 walks and 124 strikeouts in 575 at-bats. These are not statistics that would normally inspire great confidence in his hitting. The walks are nice, but the combination of a rather high K-rate with little home run power is a red flag.
Easing that concern (to some extent anyway) is age: he's only 21 years old, not turning 22 until next month. He makes a good-faith effort to work counts, hit for a good average in the low minors (.298 career hitter in A-ball), and will show some strength to the gaps at times. On purely subjective grounds, when I've seen him in person he looked like someone who could improve his hitting with experience.
I don't have sabermetrics to back that opinion up, but the bottom line is that I haven't given up on his bat by any means. If things go as planned I'll get to see him in Arizona and hope to add more details then.
The Bottom Line: Lee strikes me as the type of player who will get to the majors on the strength of his defense, not hit a lot at first, but suddenly surprise people with some solid offensive seasons in his late 20s.