March 7, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Hak-Ju Lee (66) throws the ball during spring training against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

RCG Rays 2012 Season Preview: Hak-Ju Lee

Hello Rays fans! I’m David Hill, and I’m the new staff writer for Rays Colored Glasses here at FanSided.com. I’m looking forward to bringing you content and following the Rays on what promises to be an exciting 2012 season. My first post is on a player the Rays have high hopes for – Hak Ju Lee.

Hak Ju Lee was originally signed by the Chicago Cubs as an international free agent from South Korea in 2008. He played two seasons with the Cubs in the minor leagues, with Boise in 2009 and Peoria in 2010. Despite showing a great glove and speed along with a solid ability to put the ball in play, he was blocked by ultra-prospect Starlin Castro.

This changed on January 8, 2011, when he, along with four other players, was traded for Matt Garza. Suddenly, Lee had a clear path to the majors. With the inconsistency of former #1 overall pick Tim Beckham, Lee may actually be the top shortstop prospect for the Rays.

At the time of the trade, Lee went from being almost an afterthought to a suddenly intriguing prospect. Baseball America had him ranked as the 92nd best prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season. After a season where he hit a combined .292/.365/.416 with 15 triples and 33 stolen bases, his stock skyrocketed. Keith Law of ESPN ranked him the 12th best prospect in baseball. Baseball America moved him up to 44th on their list. His emergence has also led to a potential position shift for Beckham, who is being looked at as a second baseman.

As it stands right now, Lee has a major league caliber glove and a rifle for an arm. In fact, he could legitimately be a top five defensive shortstop in the majors now, which is impressive for a 21 year old. He also has very good speed, although his stolen base success rate in 2011 (67.3% overall) would lead one to think that he does not quite know how to capitalize upon that asset yet. However, he should easily be a player that gets 30 to 40 stolen bases per year, especially playing for an aggressive baserunning team like the Rays.

There are, however, questions about his ability to hit major league pitching. According to Minor League Central, just 14.0% of Lee’s batted balls were line drives compared to the 16.5% average of the leagues he played in, and after Lee was promoted to Double-A Montgomery, his line drive percentage shot down to just 11.3%. Lee has some gap power, but he will always be a player who is extremely reliant and groundballs, and that will keep his batting average down. Nevertheless, with his speed and ability to hit the ball into the gaps, Lee projects as a .270 to .280 hitter in the majors, with 30 to 40 doubles and a fair amount of triples. Lee will never be confused for a home run threat, but he should be able to hit at least the high single-digits in homers eventually. He would fit perfectly at the bottom of the lineup, putting another fast runner in front of the leadoff hitter when the order swings back around.

So, what can Hak Ju Lee become? If his offense never catches up with his defense, then he could be Rey Ordonez. While that would be disappointing, Ordonez was a starting major league shortstop for seven years, and a three time Gold Glove winner. Given Lee’s ability to put the bat on the ball, he is much more likely to become a player like Omar Vizquel, only with a bit more speed. It took three years for Vizquel to begin to hit the ball in the majors, but he eventually became a .270 hitter over his career. Given time, Lee should become a player similar to Vizquel in his prime. For 2012, Lee may take a step back offensively as he faces better competition. However, given the type of player that he is, the Rays would be satisfied as long as he continues to display the speed and defense that has made him a top prospect.

Hak Ju Lee is the future at shortstop for the Rays. Expect to see him towards September of 2012, with an eye towards him being the starting shortstop as soon as Opening Day 2013.

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Tags: Hak-Ju Lee Omar Vizquel