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Giants signing OF Jung Hoo Lee to 6-year, $113 million deal

We discuss the news that the San Francisco Giants are signing Jung Hoo Lee to a six-year deal worth $113 million.

2023 World Baseball Classic Pool B: Game 10 Team Korea v. Team China Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

A couple days after swinging and missing on Shohei Ohtani — just the latest in a long line of superstar disappointments over the last few years — Farhan Zaidi wasted little time pivoting to Plan B. According to multiple reports, the San Francisco Giants are signing KBO star Jung Hoo Lee to a six-year deal worth $113 million, adding a jolt of youth and athleticism the team desperately needed.

Lee has flown a bit under the radar this winter, stuck in the long shadow cast by Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto. But in a market thin on position-player talent, a 25-year-old former MVP with a long track record of dominance in his home country was always bound to spark quite the bidding war.

Over seven years in the KBO — he broke into the league as an 18-year-old — Lee has put up a .340/.407/.491 batting line, including a .996 OPS and career-high 23 home runs en route to MVP honors in 2022. An ankle injury cut his 2023 season short, but he still hit 318/.406/.455 with six home runs in just 86 games (plus an emotional farewell at-bat in the Heroes’ final home contest of the year, in which he appeared to get down the line pretty well for a player not even three full months out from ankle surgery).

Scouts don’t expect him to bring 20-plus homer power to the States, but otherwise those numbers paint a pretty good picture of who Lee is as a player: a dynamic athlete who will make tons of contact — he posted an elite 91% contact rate this past season — get on base a bunch and go get it in center field. (He won the Korean equivalent of the Gold Glove each year from 2018-2022.) Think of him like a Steven Kwan or Andrew Benintendi type, only a version with far more defensive value.

In other words, exactly what the doctor ordered for a Giants team that lacked a true center fielder and finished dead last by a mile in steals this past season. (Seriously: San Francisco stole just 57 bases all year, a full 15 behind the 29th-place Angels.) Lee will allow the team to shift Mike Yastrzemski to a corner spot while asking less in the field of Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger (and hopefully improving on the dreadful .233/.303/.363 combined slash line they got from their center fielders in 2023).

As with any player without Major League experience, there’s always the risk that the transition proves too much; it’ll be a jump up in competition for Lee, and maybe he simply can’t find a way to do enough consistent damage at the plate (his exit velocity data in Korea was underwhelming, even relative to his KBO peers). But the Giants needed to take a significant swing, both to improve the on-field product in 2024 and to inject some life into what had become a moribund franchise over the last couple of years, and this is the price of doing business. Lee checks just about every box San Francisco needed to check, both in position and skill set, and he’s several years younger and substantially less expensive than the only other marquee option: Cody Bellinger.

There will likely be some bellyaching that the Giants opted for Lee over Bellinger, especially given how good the latter was for the Cubs in 2023. But Bellinger comes with his own risk: He’s three years older — not a small thing for a team that doesn’t have a single proven regular under the age of 27 — he’s likely to command closer to $200 million and he was dreadful toward the end of his time in Los Angeles before reviving his career on the North Side. Plus, Bellinger’s left-handed power is a dreadful fit for Oracle Park — just ask Brandon Belt and any of the other lefty hitters who’ve seen their homer totals sucked dry. There’s no reason to think Lee can’t be just the tablesetter this team needs, and it delivers an immediate message that Zaidi can in fact close — and that this braintrust isn’t asleep at the wheel as their roster slips into 80-win purgatory.