Giants eye Korean star Lee as possible CF upgrade

December 6th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Japanese stars Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto have been at the center of the Winter Meetings buzz this year, but there’s another international free agent who could soon become a popular target for outfield-needy clubs like the Giants.

Jung Hoo Lee was officially posted by the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization on Monday, meaning he’ll now have 30 days to negotiate with Major League clubs before his signing period expires on Jan. 3.

The Giants are among the teams that have heavily scouted the 25-year-old Lee, who earned KBO MVP honors in 2022 and has a .340 career batting average over his seven seasons in the league. Lee hit .318/.406/.455 with six home runs and 45 RBIs in 2023, though he appeared in only 86 games after suffering a left ankle fracture in July.

Still, the Giants made their interest known by sending general manager Pete Putila to South Korea to attend Lee’s final game with the Heroes in October.

“It was a great trip,” Putila said Tuesday. “He got off six or seven swings in one at-bat, so it was great to see him take those swings. I got to see him take fly balls pregame a few different days. Just to experience the game over there, the excitement, the energy was off the charts. It was a really good experience.”

A five-time winner of the KBO's Golden Glove, Lee is viewed as a plus defender in center field, a position the Giants are interested in upgrading as part of their quest to improve their defense and athleticism this offseason. San Francisco outfielders ranked 28th in the Majors with -13 outs above average in 2023, when 11 players cycled through center field.

Bringing in a true center fielder such as Lee or fellow free agent Cody Bellinger would not only stabilize the middle of the diamond, but it would also help improve the defense across the board by pushing Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater to the corners and creating more designated hitter opportunities for Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger.

“We have some guys that can play [center field], but it's no secret that that's one of the positions we're looking to upgrade, to get a little more athletic, a little bit more defensive-minded,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Yaz does such a great job in right, and then Conforto and Haniger can move around a little bit, depending on the DH situation. I think middle-of-the-diamond defense is always important, so that's one we're looking at pretty hard.”

Putila said evaluating Lee became “a little bit more challenging” following his injury-shortened 2023 season, but the Giants feel they still have plenty to go off based on his long track record in the hitter-friendly KBO. There will be some question as to whether Lee’s power will translate to the Majors, though his elite contact skills and defense should still put him in demand this winter, particularly following the recent success of Padres infielder Ha-Seong Kim, Lee's former Heroes teammate.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but we have a lot of different scouts and people that are always evaluating the connection between the two and how guys may struggle in different ways and what adjustments they need to make,” Putila said. “It’s definitely a jump, but it’s one that we think some players can make.”