Big league dreams for Rhee and Lee

Dec 18,2008
Lee Hak-joo By Kim Jin-kyung
They are both baseball players and started playing organized ball in fourth grade. They have the same last name, even though they are not related and they spell them differently in English.

And in 2009, they will be on the same team in the United States - once they both recover from the same Tommy John procedure (reconstructive elbow surgery).

But that’s where the similarities end for Rhee Dae-eun and Lee Hak-joo.

Rhee, 19, and Lee, 18, will join the Peoria Chiefs, the low Single-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs in 2009. Rhee, a right-handed pitcher, made his debut earlier this year and had a 4-1 record with a team-leading 1.80 ERA. But elbow surgery in July cut his season short.

Rhee Dae-eun [NEWSIS]
Lee, the left-handed hitting shortstop, signed with the Cubs in April. He is one of three Korean high school graduates to join the Cubs organization this year alone, along with outfielder Ha Jae-hoon and pitcher Jung Soo-min.

When the JoongAng Daily met Rhee and Lee on Tuesday at a fitness center in eastern Seoul, they were going through rehabilitation programs for their injured elbows. Because they play different positions and Rhee began his rehab earlier, they had different exercise programs.

And, as it turns out, they also have vastly different personalities.

Rhee was the ebullient one with pierced ears and a baby face with a permanent, mischievous grin.

He made eye contact, was as straight with his words as with his fastball - “The low Single-A was manageable this year” - and came across as a fun teenager who is open enough to admit he is a ball player because his father, after two daughters were born, had sworn that if the next child was a boy, he would make him a baseball player.

The freckle-faced Lee was the introvert, his voice barely rising above the background noise. He is said to have a sharp set of eyes for strike zones but those eyes were mostly fixated on the ground.

But Lee didn’t waste words, much the way he doesn’t waste motion on the field with his sleek glove at shortstop.

In January, they will fly to Arizona to prepare for their upcoming season. Rhee will begin his long toss there and admits he’s already itching.

“I am not trying to rush my rehab but I do want to begin throwing,” he said. “I just hope I won’t get hurt again.”

Steve Wilson, the Pacific Rim scouting coordinator for the Cubs, said the team knew Rhee already had a bone spur in his pitching elbow but let him pitch anyway, knowing the trouble wouldn’t arise immediately.

Rhee ended up making 10 starts, and the gamble paid off. He did not allow a home run and had 33 strikeouts in 40 innings pitched. He also held the opponents to a .194 batting average.

Wilson, a former major league pitcher with three different teams, including the Cubs, was optimistic about Rhee’s return to health.

“That type of surgery is common and the success rate is high,” Wilson said.

“It’s almost like having an oil change in your car. He is so young and as hard as he works, he’s going to come back and be even better.”

Sung Min-kyu, one of Rhee’s coaches in Peoria, said the young pitcher will have “a whole career ahead of him.”

“He’s got a tremendous work ethic,” Sung said. “We consider him one of the top minor league pitching prospects. He has a good reputation in the system.”

Rhee said his goal is to end the 2009 season in the Double-A affiliate in Tennessee. And he will be armed with a new weapon in his pitching arsenal.

“I will throw splitters this year,” Rhee said, referring to the split-finger fastball, which travels like a normal fastball and suddenly drops off toward the home plate.

“I first threw splitters in my high school senior year. I relied on changeup pitches this past season but I am going to give splitters a chance.”

Lee had his first chance to play baseball in fourth grade. He played football in elementary school and said he’d always loved running. When the school’s baseball coach saw him play football, he suggested the fast kid try baseball.

And soon he became the team’s pitcher and shortstop, two premium positions for young players that age.

When told he must have had a wealth of natural talent, Lee shrugged and said shyly, “I just kept playing hard and that’s probably what got me here so far.”

Lee is a rare shortstop who bats from the left side of the plate. He throws right and started out hitting from right.

But in middle school, Lee said, he realized once he started hitting long balls, he began trying to go for the fence every time he was up and that messed up his swing.

He shifted to the opposite side and immediately started making contact after solid contact. Just like that, Lee had become a left-handed hitting shortstop.

Wilson was especially effusive of Lee, saying, “No matter where you’re scouting, it’s hard to find a shortstop who hits left handed and who is an above-average runner. He has all the tools that can help get him to the big league.”

Wilson added, “It’s going to take a lot of hard work on his part, but I think as he starts to mature and grow stronger, he’s going to have the kind of bat that can make him the legitimate leadoff hitter in the majors.

“He is going to be an exciting player at the major league level, someone who can give teams a little bit of fits on bases because he has a really good feel for stealing bases,” Wilson continued.

“We like the way he plays the game. It’s hard to find players like him.”

Sung, the Peoria coach, also called Lee a rare find.

“The Cubs don’t have much left-handed bat and they lack some speed in the lineup,” he said. “As long as Lee keeps working, he will get his share of chances.”

If he does get to the big league, Lee would become only the third Korean position player in the majors, after first baseman Choi Hee-seop and outfielder Choo Shin-soo.

Choi is back in Korea with the Kia Tigers but has been a shell of his former self over the past two seasons. Choo had been platooning in outfield for two different teams before finally breaking through in the second half of this past season with the Cleveland Indians.

Lee, quiet though he may be, was loud about his long-term goal.

“I want to make it to the majors and stay there for a long time,” he said. “I want to have young position players look up to me and say, ‘I want to be like Hak-joo.’”

By Yoo Jee-ho Staff Reporter [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

dictionary dictionary | 프린트 메일로보내기 내블로그에 저장