There is a world where the New York Yankees invest heavily in international players this off-season. They have their sights set on Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the top free agent pitcher on the market, but reports have indicated that they’ve also had “many internal discussions” regarding Korean star Jung-Hoo Lee, another 25-year-old preparing to make the transition to the MLB.
Yamamoto and Lee: Prospective Additions
The Yankees have had significant success in the past investing in international players, with Masahiro Tanaka being the latest story. Yamamoto is primed to make a successful transition, following Kodai Senga, with whom he shares an agent. Of course, general manager Brian Cashman will have to fend off several aggressive suitors, notably the New York Mets, who have unlimited money and traded two top-flight starters at the deadline this past year.
However, Lee is an exciting young player who could be a phenomenal grab to solidify centerfield. Lee has spent seven years in the KBO, putting together some phenomenal seasons. His best campaign came back in 2022, hitting .349 with a .421 OBP, and .575 slugging rate, including 23 homers, 113 RBIs, a 10.5% walk rate, and an impressive 5.1% strikeout rate. This past season, he hit .318 with a .406 OBP and a 5.9% strikeout rate. His elite plate discipline and swing decisions are what make him such an exciting young player, not to mention having won several Gold Gloves.
Lee is a tremendous athlete who can prowl the outfield and make phenomenal grabs, but there may be a transition phase where he struggles due to higher velocity. Lee has been working diligently to develop an eye for faster pitches, but his single-digit strikeout rate certainly suggests he is up for the task and could be an elite lead-off hitter for years to come.
Potential Impact on Yankees’ Players
The Future of Jasson Dominguez
There’s a fair question to ask regarding what the Yankees should do with Jasson Dominguez if they lock down centerfield with Lee long-term. Given Dominguez is coming off Tommy John surgery and the earliest he can return is next July, the Yankees will be able to give him plenty of time to recover and work his way back into the mix.
Of course, they still have Giancarlo Stanton filling the designated hitter role, but with age catching up and his decline seemingly steep, Dominguez could be a good option to feature that spot if not rotate into the outfield.
In addition, there’s no guarantee that the Yankees will land Juan Soto, so Dominguez could theoretically shift over to left field long-term if they miss out on the blockbuster lefty slugger. If they do land Soto, Dominguez can help smooth over things defensively and rotate in, which could eventually spell the end of Stanton’s tenure with the team. They have him under contract until 2028 when he has a $10 million buyout clause but is owed $98 million in luxury tax salary leading up to that decision.
Evaluating Cost-Effective Alternatives
Kevin Kiermaier as a Backup Option
Lee will certainly be a bit more costly on the free agent market, whereas the Yankees could look for a cheaper alternative like Kevin Kiermaier, who recently spent the 2023 season with the Toronto Blue Jays. He hit .265 with a .322 OBP, including eight homers, 36 RBIs, and a 104 wRC+.
However, he’s an elite defensive player in centerfield, collecting 18 defensive runs saved and 13 outs above average across 981.1 innings this past season. Given he’s a lefty bat and a better offensive player than Harrison Bader, he would be a solid addition on a one-year deal if the Yankees decide that Lee is too expensive.