After 2011, everything was looking up for Hak-Ju Lee. In his first year in the Rays organization after being acquired in the Matt Garza deal, Lee hit .318/.389/.443 in 97 games at High-A, though he didn’t do great in a Double-A cameo. Not only was he showing ability with the bat, but Lee was playing incredible defense at shortstop and was also showing ability on the basepaths. Best of all- that was in Lee’s age 20 season, so he was dominating despite being young for his league. Since that 2011 season, however, Lee has lost his luster as a prospect.
In 2012, Lee’s bat took a step back at Double-A. He hit just .261/.336/.360, losing a considerable amount of power. Lee also put up a career-high strikeout rate of 19.1%. All of a sudden there were many questions surrounding his bat. Was 2012 a fluke, or was it because Lee’s bat would not hold up against higher level pitching? Even if he got his contact rates back, would that lead to much power? Regardless heading into 2013, Lee was still considered to be one of the top prospects in the Rays’ system.
If 2012 was a tough season, then 2013 was an absolute disaster. Through 15 games with Triple-A Durham, Lee’s offense had shown progress as he hit .422/.536/.600. But in a flash none of that mattered, as a slide into second base from Travis Ishikawa gave Lee multiple torn ligaments in his knee and a lost season.
This year it was up to Lee to come back strong. There were even more questions than before, such as whether Lee’s injury would cause him to lose a step. Of course, questions about his bat still remained. Rather than re-establishing himself as a top prospect in the Rays’ system, Lee has only disappointed. In 88 games this year at Triple-A, he is hitting just .203/.287/.270. He is still playing great defense and his speed hasn’t taken a significant hit- certainly a good sign. But if Lee can’t hit, it doesn’t matter how good his defense is.
When looking at the past few years, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about Lee. His bat remains a huge, huge question, and that alone might keep him from making a big league impact. Lee really hasn’t had a good season at the plate since that breakout 2011 year, and as he continues to struggle it makes you wonder more and more if he can ever improve.
All that said, Lee still has the potential to be a very good big league player. His defense is never going to be questioned, and that skill alone could put him in the big leagues as a utility man. His bat still has potential as well. Lee is still flashing a smooth left-handed swing. There may not be a ton of power ever, but one can still see Lee becoming a high-contact hitter in the future.
At 23-years old, Hak-Ju Lee has some time to figure everything out. However, his last three seasons have been filled with disappointment. After his prolonged struggles on offense this year, you have to wonder if he can ever take the steps needed to become a big league player at all, let alone a starting shortstop. We will have to wait and see how everything works out, but for now it is hard not to be worried about Lee’s future.