Hak-Ju Lee on Fire at Triple-A, Plotting Course for Tampa Bay

We ranked Lee the number 92 prospect in the game coming into the season. Image : Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays are off to a disappointing (5-10) start and their offense, which had many a pundit worried coming into the season, has been the biggest (though certainly not the only) reason why.

Chief among the offensive offenders is shortstop Yunel Escobar, who has offered up a slash line of just .115/.207/.154 through his first 59 plate appearances. Obviously this is a tremendously small sample size, but Escobar is coming off a poor offensive campaign with Toronto in 2012 and has posted an OPS of  no higher than .655 in two of his past three seasons.

In other words, there is reason to believe that Escobar is simply not an above average offensive player and given his character concerns, the Rays certainly couldn’t be blamed if they have a short leash with him.

If the Rays were to choose to, they may be able to find a viable alternative in 22-year-old shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, who is currently lighting up the International League for the Triple-A Durham Bulls.

Lee, who has long been renowned as an elite defensive shortstop, seems to have found his stroke in the early campaign. Over the past week he’s been on fire (as evidenced by his appearance on Baseball America’s weekly Hot Sheet) and he’s posted a .419/.537/.605 line through the first 14 games of the year.

This is Lee’s first taste of Triple-A pitching, and his early-season success at the plate is, in all likelihood, simply a hot start. In a year-and-a-half at Double-A Montgomery in 2011 and 2012, Lee struggled mightily at the dish, posting a .249/.325/.351 line over the course of 575 at bats. This was a drop in production that could have been anticipated given that his solid OBP numbers in Class-A were largely fueled by a good batting average. Lee has very little power, but good speed and has twice posted double-digit totals in triples, though he has just 13 professional home runs.

So far this season, Lee has been seeing the ball very well, which is displayed by his 11 walks in the early campaign. H’s walking in 20 percent of his plate appearances thus far while his career numbers are more in the nine-to-nine-and-a-half percent area. Lee has fanned just nine times in comparison, which also represents a significant improvement over his personal history.

As much as the Rays do plan to compete every season in the AL East, they do so by always remaining cost-conscious to the point that the finances always trump the potential for big league success. So while top pitching prospects are routinely held back in the minor leagues until they are absolutely big league ready, thereby delaying the player’s arbitration clock, the same principle applies to the up and coming crop of young hitters in the system.

Though Lee’s glove could play in the big league right now, and his bat might even prove to be an upgrade over what Escobar could provide, Tampa Bay won’t make a move to replace the veteran with the rookie until they are sure that it won’t cost them a year of service time on Lee. It’s the same plan they’re using with top prospect Wil Myers, who, if service time weren’t a concern, would be playing everyday for the Rays this season.

Lee is young for his league, just as he was last season, and won’t turn 23 until November. It’s probable that the Rays have no plans to bring him to the big leagues at all this season. If that’s the case, it won’t matter how much success he has at the plate in 2013. It may take Tampa Bay completely falling out of contention for a change to be made at shortstop and for Lee to assume the role for the Rays.

Topics: Durham Bulls, Hak-Ju Lee, Tampa Bay Rays, Yunel Escobar

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