[SPORTS VIEW]Slugger’s hot here, but show is a riskLee Seung-yeop, the Samsung Lions’ first baseman, is the leading home run hitter in Korean professional baseball. As of Wednesday, Lee had hit 17 round-trippers. After this season, Lee is scheduled to become a free agent.
If he decides to stay in Korea, his annual salary ― now at 630 million won ($526,000) ― will probably be in the neighborhood of 700 to 800 million won. This means that his signing bonus, usually two to three times a player’s average salary, will likely reach the 2 billion won area. Assuming he signs a four-year contract, his earning potential should exceed 5.2 billion won.
Unless the mechanics of Korean pitchers improves dramatically, it’s safe to say that Lee is going to earn his stripes by the end of the season. Nonetheless, whether the first baseman opts to cash in an almost certain income is a different matter.
Everyone knows that Korea's top slugger yearns to get to the show. Earlier this spring, Lee participated in the Florida Marlins’ spring training camp, and the spring before he appeared at the Chicago Cubs' camp. But to talk about his performances is pointless because preseason numbers mean little when it comes to the regular season.
Lee will have to overcome many things to become a successful major league slugger. He'll face a different strike zone and different pitchers, most of them of a very high caliber. Considering Lee’s moderate bat speed, facing major league pitchers who fire strikes at blazing speeds, will likely pose problems.
Being a lefty puts him at the usual disadvantage against southpaws as well. If Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks starts throwing his 153-kilometers-per-hour (95-miles- per-hour) fastball inside on Lee, the Korean will be in serious trouble. (Of course, most left-handed batters are in trouble when Johnson pitches).
Even in Korea, Lee's average against lefties drops like a thermometer at the South Pole. Left-handed batters must cope with balls arriving at wicked angles, often thrown down around their knees by lefty pitchers.
The mental side of the game may factor in as the most important part of the game. For Lee, being the top player in Korea can work both ways: Either it will make him work harder in the show to prove he belongs, or he may fold like a paper airplane when he feels outclassed. Language and culture, however trivial that may sound, may also affect a player’s stats.
Considering the money Lee wants, which is at least $2 million per year, he'll have to find a team willing to use a Korean as its starting first baseman and not as a backup.
And to be a first baseman in the major leagues, he'll be expected to knock in about 100 RBIs a season, and deliver from 25 to 30 homers.
At the end of the day, provided there is a team that needs him, the decision will be Lee's. He can choose to remain Korea's top slugger, with a stable income and wide fame. Or he can try his luck in the show at great risk.
My guess is he will cross the Pacific at the next opportunity -- even if offered a less than perfect package.
After all, it's every baseball player’s dream to reach the show.
by Brian Lee