The Giants and outfielder Jung Hoo Lee are in agreement on a six-year, $113M deal, per Jon Heyman of The New York Post. There is an opt-out after four years. In addition to that guarantee, the Giants will owe a posting fee of $18.825M to the Kiwoom Heroes. Lee is a client of the Boras Corporation.
Lee, 25, has been a highly anticipated free agent for a long time now. It was reported in January that the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization would post him for MLB clubs after the 2023 campaign. At that point, Lee was coming off an excellent 2022 campaign.
He had always had strong plate discipline but took that part of his game to new heights last year, walking in 10.5% of his plate appearances while striking out in just 5.1% of them. He had never hit more than 15 home runs in a season but managed to tally 23 in that season. He finished with a batting line of .349/.421/.575 for a wRC+ of 175, indicating he was 75 percent better than league average. He also won a Golden Glove award for a fifth straight year and earned MVP honors.
But his platform year didn’t go quite according to plan. He hit .318/.406/.455 with just six homers in his 86 games in 2023. He injured his left ankle in late July, necessitating season-ending surgery. Nonetheless, he garnered plenty of interest from clubs like the Giants, Padres, Yankees and Mets before being officially posted last week.
The profile was somewhat similar to Masataka Yoshida, who was another contact-over-power player coming from overseas. Yoshida played in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball until signing with the Red Sox for 2023 on a five-year, $90M deal. Since the NPB is generally considered a notch above the KBO, that could perhaps lead an observer to prefer his track record to Lee’s.
But there are a couple of reasons why Lee might be preferable, one of which is age. The ability to sign an everyday player who is just 25 years of age doesn’t occur very often, and the widespread interest in both Lee and Yoshinobu Yamamoto shows that clubs place value on that youth. Yoshida, by contract, was coming over for his age-29 season. Lee’s opt-out gives him the chance to potentially return to the open market before his 30th birthday after perhaps having proven himself capable as a major leaguer.
The other thing Lee appears to have over Yoshida is defensive acumen. Yoshida was considered a left-field-only player before signing and was graded poorly for his glovework with Boston, which could lead to him spending more time as a designated hitter over the years. Lee, however, is considered strong in the field. Evaluators are split on whether or not he can stick in center field, where he spent most of his time with the Heroes. In Major League Baseball, he could be either a passable center fielder or better suited to a corner, depending on who you ask.
All of the questions make Lee difficult to project and it seems fair to categorize this as a high-risk, high-reward play. As recently pointed out by Eno Sarris of The Athletic, Lee’s batted ball metrics come in a bit below those of Ha-Seong Kim in his last KBO season. Kim struggled in his first MLB season, though eventually adjusted enough to be slightly above average at the plate in each of the past two seasons. MLBTR predicted that Lee would secure a five-year, $50M deal, but the Giants have soared well past that, more than doubling it. Given their strong investment here, they likely have high confidence in Lee, both in his ability to hit major league pitching and perhaps stick in center field as well.
Just as the offseason was kicking off, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi stated that defensive upgrades in the outfield were a priority for this winter. “We’ll look to add a little bit more speed, a little bit more range to the outfield,” Zaidi said at that time. There were good reasons for such a target. The club’s outfielders posted a collective -13 Outs Above Average in 2023, with only the Cardinals and Rockies coming in below them. Their -7 Defensive Runs Saved and -12.4 Ultimate Zone Rating also fell in the bottom 10 league-wide.
The Giants didn’t really have a full-time center fielder in 2023, as no player lined up there for more than 57 games. Each of Luis Matos, Mike Yastrzemski, Austin Slater, Bryce Johnson, Brett Wisely and Wade Meckler got into double digits, while Tyler Fitzgerald, Cal Stevenson, Heliot Ramos, LaMonte Wade Jr. and AJ Pollock had brief stints there. The club is likely hoping that Lee can solidify that position while pushing Yastrzemski into the corner outfield mix alongside guys like Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto. Matos may wind up back in the minors after a mediocre MLB debut in 2023, or perhaps the club would consider putting him on the trading block.
In addition to the $113M that Lee will receive, the Giants will also owe a posting fee to the Heroes. With any player posted for MLB clubs, the signing team owes a fee to the posting club, relative to the size of the contract. It’s 20% of the first $25M, 17.5% of the next $25M and 15% of any dollars thereafter. For this deal, the Giants will owe $18.825M to the Heroes on this deal, meaning they are shelling out $131.825M to add Lee to the roster.
In recent years, the Giants have tried to sign star players and have come up just short. They were in the running for Aaron Judge last year before he returned to the Yankees. They had a deal in place with Carlos Correa before they balked at his physical and walked away, leading to him returning to the Twins. They were in the running for Shohei Ohtani this offseason before he signed with the Dodgers.
Lee doesn’t quite match up to those players in terms of star power but this is easily the largest investment of Zaidi’s tenure. The club gave a $90M extension to Logan Webb but the biggest free agent deals in recent years were $44M to Carlos Rodónand $43.5M to Haniger. The Rodón deal had an opt-out after the first year that was eventually triggered, so the club didn’t even pay out that full contract.
The specific contract breakdown hasn’t been reported but that won’t be relevant for the competitive balance tax, which goes by the average annual value of a deal. Roster Resource has already plugged in Lee’s AAV and has the Giants’ CBT number at $189M. It’s unknown if they are willing to cross the $237M base threshold next year, but even if not, they could still have around $45M to pursue upgrades elsewhere on the roster.
For the clubs that missed out on Lee, free agency still features capable center fielders like Cody Bellinger, Harrison Bader, Kevin Kiermaier and Michael A. Taylor, while the trade market could feature players like Dylan Carlson or Manuel Margot.