WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A relocation to the Houston area with his girlfriend in the offseason -- plus the addition of a dog -- has Astros catching prospect Korey Lee wanting to put down more roots in the area.
Lee, 23, seems well-positioned to be able to unpack his bags and remain in Texas, considering he performed well last year at Double-A Corpus Christi and got his feet wet with nine games at Triple-A Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston. The goal of playing at Minute Maid Park with the Astros is now within reach.
The Astros’ No. 1 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, Lee had a promising first full season in professional baseball in 2021, slashing .277/.340/.438 with 11 homers and 45 RBIs across three levels. Most of his time was spent at Double-A, where he hit .254/.320/.443 with eight homers and 27 RBIs in 50 games.
“It was a good learning season,” Lee said. “It was the first full season that I had, and I think it was a developmental year for me on the catching side, and then obviously on the hitting side, it was just rolling with what I was doing in Spring Training. And then just taking that in the season and trying to be as consistent as possible.”
Because the Astros have streamlined their Minor League affiliates in the last few years -- their Double-A and Triple-A teams are in Texas and both Class A teams are in North Carolina -- it’s become a little bit easier on players in terms of finding consistent places to live. Given he’s likely to spend much of the season at Sugar Land, Lee’s proximity to the Triple-A club and Minute Maid Park provides comfort.
“I keep on saying the Minor Leagues is tough,” Lee said. “You're going from apartment to apartment, and I think that the move going out to Houston will make me feel more at home when I'm in season and just feel more comfortable. Girlfriend’s there holding it down, and obviously got a dog now so it feels like home. So that's what I missed and that's what I love.”
A first-round pick (32nd overall) in the 2019 MLB Draft out of Cal Berkeley, Lee stands to be next in line to be Houston’s starting catcher following the veteran tandem of Martín Maldonado and Jason Castro. Maldonado is under contract through ’22 with an option for ’23 while Castro is a free agent after ’22.
“I always bring it back to when I was a junior and getting drafted. You’ve just got to keep your head down, keep on playing your game,” Lee said. “It's like the same thing as Draft day. I had no idea that I was going to get picked and then next thing you know, you’re picked, and I think that's what's going to happen with this whole situation. Hopefully, one day I get the call and I just get to go play baseball. That's what I love to do.”
Since turning pro, Lee has quieted his load, shortened his stride and added more balance at the plate, which has allowed him to drive balls in the air from gap to gap more easily. A right-handed hitter, he still can tap into his well above-average raw power if he can further reduce his tendency to make ground-ball contact. He has a sound approach at the plate, working counts and letting his pop come naturally.
Lee didn't become a full-time catcher until 2019 and continues to develop behind the plate. He's quicker and more athletic than most backstops, and he should become at least an average receiver and blocker as he gains more experience. The Astros have helped him take advantage of his plus-plus arm strength by shortening his throwing stroke, and he erased 43 percent of base stealers last season. He’s also now catching with one knee on the ground, which helps him control the running game better.
“It's changed my game, I think, for the better,” Lee said. “I remember in college, I was catching on two feet and now I'm like, ‘What was I doing?’ Like I have no idea. So it's evolving and I think all the catchers now should be able to do it. It's just beneficial for everybody.”
With a projectable bat and strong arm, Lee said controlling the pitching game will be an important element for him to master as he inches closer to the big leagues. Everything else is falling into place.
“I think that's what I learned last year, is how to connect with pitchers on that end,” Lee said. “And on the physical end, it was the transition to the one knee and trying to figure out what I can and what I can't do, and what I can get away with and what the best way of catching for me is. Really just trying to figure out every situation and trust it.”