Since the moment that the Tampa Bay Rays acquired Hak-Ju Lee in the Matt Garza deal, he has ranked among their top prospects. For the longest time, he was considered their shortstop of the future. Now, however, no one knows what the Rays are planning to do with Lee. After they extended Yunel Escobar for two years with an option for a third year, the Rays are years away from needing another starting shortstop. With that in mind, Lee could be a trade chip–and if they do make him available, the New York Mets could be one interested team.
The Mets are inching towards contention, but the shortstop position is one spot where they have not made sufficient progress. The Mets’ current two shortstops would be solid if they were one player, but Wilmer Flores‘ defensive questions and Ruben Tejada‘s struggles at the plate leave them without a qualified starter. They don’t even have a good shortstop prospect anywhere near the big leagues. They recognize that there is a problem, and they are doing their best to fix it. Andy Martino of the New York Daily News reported that the Mets are targeting a young shortstop they could potentially control for several years, and Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors speculated that Lee could be one of their targets. If the Mets wanted to acquire Lee, they have the ability to do so thanks to a solid system headlined by quite a few pitching prospects. That seems pretty clear. Instead, the major factors for this trade would be whether the Rays would be willing to trade Lee and whether Lee is actually the type of player for which the Mets are looking.
It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Rays would want to trade Lee. Escobar is signed for two more years, and they have alternatives like Jake Hager and Tim Beckham at the upper levels of their system. The picture is complicated, though, by the fact that Ben Zobrist will set to be a free agent after next season. Top second base prospect Ryan Brett looks like his heir apparent, but Lee is a safer option more likely to be ready….though let’s be honest, that is not a great argument. Lee’s likely role with the Rays would be as a utility player, at least for a couple of years, and that is a waste of his talents. The real reason that the Rays would not want to trade Hak-Ju Lee is that his value is not particularly high right now.
Lee is just making his way back from the knee surgery that ended his 2013 season, and only lately has he started to heat up. He began 3 for his first 27 before managing a .261/.393/.348 line in 7 plate appearances since. That on-base percentage is nice and Lee has also swiped 4 of 5 bases, showing that the surgery has not affected his speed too much. Nevertheless, his issue is the same that it has always been: hitting the ball with authority. Lee remains the same 6’2″, 170 that he was when he joined the organization in 2011, failing to increase his strength and his power at all. Lee isn’t a Ruben Tejada-esque hitter–he has better plate discipline and speed–but he still has work to do proving that his offense can be more than passable. If the Rays are going to trade Lee, they would prefer to do so with his stock high after a strong season at Triple-A. They could think about moving Lee following the year, but it is unlikely that they will consider trading him in the next couple of months because the offers will not be what Lee could garner at a later date.
On the Mets side, meanwhile, they would love to acquire Lee for pennies on the dollar now, but with the Rays having their heads screwed on straight, that is not going to happen. Assuming that is true, New York would also rather wait until Lee demonstrates that he could be solid at the plate before they execute any deal. They certainly are not going to give up any major assets before they are sure that Lee can really be a mainstay at shortstop for them. By then, they hope that they have already acquired a player like Nick Franklin or Didi Gregorius and made the point moot.
If the New York Mets still do not have a viable shortstop by the Winter Meetings, expect to hear more rumors of a Hak-Ju Lee deal, especially if Lee plays well the rest of this season. While a trade does not make sense right now, both sides could be interested in making one happen eventually. For now, however, the Mets will pursue other options and the Rays will do what they can to continue helping Lee along.