With the Yankees‘ search for left-handed outfielders underway, they’re linked to one of the top international targets on the free-agent market. Centerfielder Jung-Hoo Lee, a 25-year-old from the Korean Baseball Organization, is set to be posted this offseason and could be one of the most intriguing names on the market. He’s been the best hitter in all of Korea over the past three seasons, displaying incredible contact and plate discipline tools that could translate well stateside.
Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported that the Yankees are among the suitors for his services, and given the team’s desire to get younger and more left-handed, he could be a near-perfect fit for the team.
What Do the Yankees Like About Jung-Hoo Lee?
The Yankees only got a .673 OPS from their left-handed hitters this past season, an issue that plagued the Yankees and caused them to struggle mightily against right-handed pitching. They were just 24th in wRC+ versus right-handed pitching, and if they could secure a left-handed outfielder such as Jung-Hoo Lee to play centerfield for them, it could alleviate some of those issues. Lee, who had his 2023 season cut short with an ankle injury, has a 162 wRC+ in his past three seasons in the KBO, winning MVP and hitting a career-high 23 HRs in 2022.
At just 25 years old, he would be a player the Yankees could add to their young, budding core, and with the uncertainty surrounding Jasson Dominguez’s return date, the team isn’t in a position to sit idly by and hope that he can return and rush back into the outfield. Lee, who has won a Gold Glove for his defense in center field, has a 60 Grade Fielding tool on FanGraphs and is raved about for his ability to track down balls in the outfield well, which is important given how vast the Yankees’ outfield is in the gaps.
When it comes to his offense, it’s easy to see how fans would fall in love with his style of offense. With just a 5.9% strikeout rate this past season, Lee has maintained ridiculously high contact rates throughout his professional career. While he’ll have to adjust to the higher velocities and better competition at the Major League level, the KBO has some strong talent as well. In fact, Baseball America grouped the KBO in between Double-A and Triple-A and given his young age, Lee would profile as a mid-20s outfielder who can still develop some of his skills to generate consistent production.
Brian Cashman made it clear at the GM Meetings that he wants to add two outfielders, preferably left-handed, and if the team were able to add Jung Hoo-Lee and another left-handed outfielder like Juan Soto, they would get plenty younger and more dynamic. A legitimate concern with acquiring Lee is that there would likely be an adjustment period, as the last star player to come over from the KBO, Ha-Seong Kim, put up just a 71 wRC+ and 23.8% strikeout rate in his first season.
The Yankees are trying to compete in 2024, and they would need to get Lee online at some point in 2024 to make sure that he’s able to provide with the bat, but given his strong glove and exciting speed, he could still provide value. Steamer projects Jung-Hoo Lee for a 108 OPS+ and .342 OBP, which would both greatly help the team, and if he’s able to live up to those projections, he’ll be a much-needed addition to their lineup. Furthermore, if the Yankees can make the right moves around Lee, they can hit him in the bottom third of their order, placing less pressure on him to perform immediately.
Another advantage that Lee will have over Kim is that the infielder came over during the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus, the ability to publicly train was much more in flux than it is in the current day. The proper offseason regimen could get him adjusted to higher velocities and perhaps create a less steep learning curve. It’s clear that the Yankees are going to explore all possibilities in the outfield, and Jung-Hoo Lee would certainly be an exciting addition to their outfield.