Persistence paying off for No. 14 prospect Lee

April 16th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck's Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ERIE, Pa. -- Hao-Yu Lee uses an interpreter for interviews, but the tattoo on the left side of the Taiwan-born infield prospect’s neck needs no translation: Persistence.

The 21-year-old has been through a lot, from signing with the Phillies as a teenager three years ago for a $570,000 bonus to becoming a top-5 prospect in Philadelphia’s farm system, then being acquired by Detroit at last summer’s Trade Deadline for Michael Lorenzen and suffering a season-ending calf injury just a week into his Tigers tenure last August at High-A West Michigan. Lee made up for some of the lost time with a few weeks in the Arizona Fall League, but in many ways, this is a first impression for him in the organization.

So far, the Tigers’ No. 14 prospect has reminded everyone of why he fit into the system in the first place. Two weeks into his season at Double-A Erie, Lee has been as advertised: Good knowledge of the strike zone, solid bat-to-ball skills, sneaky power and great instincts. And he doesn’t hurt for confidence.

“I've never had a doubt in what I'm preparing for,” Lee said through an interpreter last week. “Keep trusting that.”

Lee went 3-for-5 with a home run in Erie’s second game of the season, kicking off a four-game hitting streak. His 2-for-4 game with a double last Wednesday against Binghamton showed why he wins over coaches. Lee led off the fourth inning with a ground-rule double to center, laying off two pitches low before crushing a ball on the inside part of the plate. An inning later, he forced Mets No. 18 prospect Tyler Stuart up in the zone again, this time a 2-2 pitch over the plate that he hit on the ground through the left side for an RBI single. Lee then promptly stole second base.

At that point, Lee was 7-for-20 with three RBIs, four runs scored and three stolen bases in as many attempts. Three hitless games over the weekend dropped his average to .250, but his all-around game has impressed throughout, especially for a player nearly three years below the average age for the league, according to baseball-reference.

“He's an explosive player,” SeaWolves manager Gabe Alvarez said. “He's fearless out there. That's the best way I can describe him: He's not scared out there, which is great. He likes to run. He likes to be aggressive. And he's played outstanding defense.”

The aggressiveness generally comes in the strike zone. Like a lot of hitters at that level, Lee hunts fastballs. But he has a better ability to connect with them than others.

“He's a good player, just all around,” said Tigers No. 11 prospect Troy Melton, Lee’s teammate last year at West Michigan and now in Erie. “Especially hitting-wise early in the season, he's really finding barrels pretty consistently here. He's looked really good. He's a great fielder. He's a baseball player, just a good player, and that's what you're looking for to play with.”

Going into the season, the running game was a particular focus for Lee, who moves well for his 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame.

“I've always been on my running game,” Lee said, “but this offseason specifically, I was working on getting more lean and getting my posture [right] when I'm running, focusing on that. I hope it shows.”

If Lee can keep this up, he’ll climb the list of Tigers infield prospects and knock on Detroit’s door. Though Colt Keith has second base settled at Comerica Park for the foreseeable future, Lee has the kind of two-way game that finds a spot if he produces -- maybe as a right-handed-hitting complement, maybe as a utility infielder.

Lee is one of several players in the system making a strong early impression. Here’s a look at the other levels:

Triple-A Toledo: No. 4 prospect Jace Jung has so far met the test of facing advanced pitching, batting .278/.365/.537 with three homers and 12 RBIs as the 2022 first-round pick continues to push his timetable to Detroit. The 23-year-old third baseman has five multihit games, and he went 6-for-19 (.316) with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs last week against Indianapolis at Fifth Third Field.

High-A West Michigan: No. 17 prospect Max Anderson has hit at every level he has played since being drafted in the second round last summer. He’s 9-for-21 (.429) with one double, one homer and five RBIs through seven games for the Whitecaps, with more walks (five) than strikeouts (four). The former Nebraska Cornhusker continues to stick at second base, but as long as he hits, the Tigers will find a spot as he advances, possibly quickly.

Single-A Lakeland: No. 18 prospect Josue Briceño has picked up where he left off last season for the Flying Tigers, batting 11-for-29 (.379) with one home run, three RBIs, six walks and just two strikeouts. He batted 9-for-20 (.450) over five games last week against Bradenton, golfing a line drive out to right in Sunday’s series finale.