There are so many top prospects every year in baseball, and some of them will live up to the billing and turn into the stars of tomorrow. For so many of them, however, something will get in their way. They could get injured or have difficulty making an adjustment, and suddenly their prospect stock comes tumbling down. When that happens, the question is what happens next. A knee injury ruined Hak-Ju Lee‘s 2013 and put his future in question. How will he respond?
Hak-Ju Lee first came over to the Rays from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal and immediately became one of the Rays’ top prospects, as well as a consensus top-100 prospect in all of baseball. Lee came over with a reputation of a solid bat, although one without a ton of power, as well as plus defense at shortstop, but he was unproven against competition in the upper minors. Lee’s first season with the Rays was a success as he hit to a .318/.390/.452 line in High-A, good for a 133 wRC+, and also playing great defensively. 2012 saw him move up to Double-A, but his bat slipped to a .261/.336/.360 line and a 97 wRC+. Lee’s defense never ceased to impress, and he was becoming quite accomplished as a basestealer, swiping over 30 bags both years. Lee moved up to Triple-A to start 2013, but after hitting as strongly as ever for 15 games, his season ended due to a devastating knee injury. Now Lee enters 2014 with many things up in the air, making next year his most important season yet.
The biggest questions surrounding Lee are whether he is healthy and how the injury will affect him moving forward. Considering Lee’s injury occurred at the beginning of the season, Lee has had plenty of time to rest and rehab the knee, so he should be healthy to start 2014. His knee injury was a freak occurrence after he had been healthy in the past, and the Rays have to hope it will not cause future issues. The more pivotal concern is if the injury will affect Lee’s performance. While he has shown flashes with the bat in the lower minors, Lee’s game has always been built around speed and defense. Therefore, a knee injury, especially one as significant as his, is something to worry about. Maybe Lee comes back with no adverse effects, or maybe this injury takes away from his abilities significantly. As a player without much power, Lee will need to use his legs to get on base, and if he loses a step, that would be a crushing blow. The good news is that even if his defense suffers, he is still likely an above-average defender, but with his bat no sure thing, he will need as much defensive ability as he can get. Only time will tell, but there is a legitimate risk that this injury could have a long-term effect on Lee’s performance.
Another question that remains is if Lee’s bat will be able to play against tougher competition. Other than his 15 game hot streak to start off the 2013 season, Lee has not hit well above High-A. Especially if his speed will continue to be affected, his bat will need to at least hold its own. Lee certainly has showed the potential of having a good contact swing and gap power, giving him a chance to be an above-average offensive shortstop. But Lee needs to prove his bat can maintain its worth against tougher competition. At 23 years old, he still does have time to put everything together, but his bat needs to prove itself next year as he goes back to Triple-A.
Right now, the Rays are set in the middle infield, with Yunel Escobar manning shortstop and Ben Zobrist manning second base. Both Escobar and Zobrist are also under team control for 2014 and 2015. In Lee’s absolutely best case scenario, he comes back completely healthy and hits extremely well in Triple-A. Even then, he would still be blocked in the big leagues. If Lee wants to earn a spot on the Rays’ roster the next two years, he can’t just limp to the finish line–he has to blow them away. If he does not, Lee may have to settle for a utility role on the Rays, and you never know what happens from there.
Hak-Ju Lee enters his most important developmental year in 2014. He will have to prove he is healthy, and even then his speed and defense could still suffer. After a lost 2013, he still needs to prove that he can hit against tougher pitching. With the Rays already having great options at short and second for the next two years, Lee will need to show his worth or risk getting lost in the shuffle. He still has everything it takes to be an above-average everyday shortstop, but in order to reach that potential these questions will need to be answered sooner rather than later. Hak-Ju Lee remains talented, but now the pressure is on.