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Tampa Bay Rays: The Unfortunate Story of Hak-Ju Lee

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Chris Archer is the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace. Brandon Guyer is the team’s leadoff hitter against left-handed pitching and a valuable bench player on the whole. Sam Fuld, meanwhile, was a critical player for the Rays in 2011 and had his moments in the two years after. There is no question that the Rays won the Matt Garza trade, with Archer doing most of the honors by himself. That being said, it is still frustrating what happened to Hak-Ju Lee. There was little doubt for a long time was that he would end up right there with Archer, Guyer, and Fuld.

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The Rays were expecting a lot from Lee, and they were confident that they would at least get something. He was a ridiculous shortstop defender with blazing speed and a solid plate approach. He didn’t hit for much power, but he has plenty of room to fill out on his 6’2″, 170 frame and the hope was that it would come. Even if it didn’t, he looked primed to be the Rays’ starting shortstop and bat ninth. This was a team that had started Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, and Elliot Johnson at short following the departure of Jason Bartlett, and with the offensive bar so low and Lee’s defense so excellent, it was going to be difficult for Lee not  to improve upon that group.

We saw a few warning signs. After Lee hit to a .318/.389/.443 line at High-A in 2011, he slipped to a .190/.272/.310 line as he finished the year at Double-A. His full year with the Montgomery Biscuits in 2012 wasn’t very good either as he managed a .261/.336/.360 line, but he he had improved his ability to steal bases while still drawing his fair share of walks. Then 2013 began, and we all wanted to think that he had made it and would be just as good as we thought he could be. Lee began the year by hitting .422 in his first 57 plate appearances, delivering 5 extra-base hits, 6 stolen bases, and 11 walks against 9 strikeouts.

You probably know what happened next. Lee tore ligaments in his knee as he tried to turn a double play with a runner bearing down on him, and he was out for the season. He returned in 2014, but he simply hasn’t been the same since. He managed just a .203/.287/.276 line last season and upped that only moderately to a .220/.303/.304 mark in 2015. He had finally bulked up, filling out to 215 pounds, but it was too late. His speed and defense weren’t the same, and his bat simply never came along. And now he is on the waiver wire for any team to claim.

The Rays have themselves not one potential shortstop of the future, but two, Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames. They have moved on without Lee, and it won’t make a huge difference moving forward that he never panned out. At the same time, though, it is demoralizing that the Rays literally got nothing out of Lee other than a 40-man roster spot taken up. Even the dream entering this year that he could rebound to become a utility player was too optimistic. At least Robinson Chirinos got into a few games–Lee never even made his major league debut with the Rays.

The Hak-Ju Lee era for the Tampa Bay Rays reminds us to appreciate the prospects that do pan out. This wasn’t a Josh Sale situation where Lee did anything wrong–he put in the work and did everything he could to become an impact major league player, but his freak injury wound up being too much to overcome. We get to see both sides of the spectrum as Archer reaches his upside while Lee experiences his worst-case scenario. One out of two is still one heck of a batting average.

Lee is only 24 years old and hopefully the story doesn’t end here. The Rays are hoping that he will stay in their organization and maybe even re-sign as a minor league free agent following the year. Perhaps Lee will keep improving as the knee injury gets farther into the past. But now we are getting into another story. Hak-Ju Lee the safe starting shortstop is long gone, and the player that takes the field for the Durham Bulls or whatever other team next season won’t have a single MLB game to prove that his previous version ever existed.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: Profiling the September Call-Ups

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