Lotte’s Lee might have to tighten his belt

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Lotte’s Lee might have to tighten his belt

Lee Dae-ho is an unhappy man. The Lotte Giants are attempting to reduce the 28-year-old’s contract, and he’s been holding out from team training - deservedly so.

The player is coming off a season in which he hit .293, 28 home runs and 100 RBI. Despite a solid season, Lotte targeted Lee among several others on the team who are facing salary reductions in the upcoming season. At the core of the Giants front office’s move to reduce the team’s payroll for the upcoming season is the fourth-place finish in 2009 compared to the third overall finish the year before. Lotte lost to the Doosan Bears in the first round of the KBO playoffs last season.

In an attempt to upgrade their starting lineup, the Giants have decided to move the “Big Boy” to first base and have been pursuing trades for a third baseman. It was reported the Giants showed strong interest in free agent Lee Bum-ho before the former Hanwha Eagle signed with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Nippon Professional Baseball as a free agent in November of last year.

The move makes sense considering Lee Dae-ho’s girth and lack of lateral movement on the field. At 192 centimeters (6 feet 3 inches) and generously listed at 100 kilograms (220 pounds), the 28-year-old is built like a night club bouncer. In the mould of David Ortiz (or even champion weight lifter Jang Mi-ran), Lee is built to play first base or the designated hitter position and never was the answer at third base.

Despite the shortcomings on defense, Lee, with his smooth swing, has always been productive with a bat. He doesn’t have great vision at the plate, but when he does connect on a pitch, it’s a pretty sight.

His offensive production has been among the league’s elite the past few seasons. After joining the Giants in 2001, Lee began to produce respectable numbers starting in 2004. But his breakout season came in 2006 when Lee topped the league in batting average, home runs and RBI (.336, 26 home runs, 88 RBI).

It was the first time a Korean batter had achieved a Triple Crown since current SK Wyverns coach Lee Man-soo reached the feat with the Samsung Lions in 1984. Despite the younger Lee’s phenomenal 2006 season, Hanwha Eagles’ Ryu Hyun-jin ended up winning the Most Valuable Player honor that season.

Lee followed up on the effort with a .335 average, 29 home runs and 87 RBI and subsequently got a significant raise to 320 million won ($320,040) from the 130 million won he had earned the previous season. His numbers dipped a bit in 2008 with a .301 average, 18 home runs and 94 RBI, but his salary increased to 360 million won.

While he did not finish first in any offensive categories in 2009, Lee finished fourth in home runs and tied for third in RBI with Choi Hee-seop of the Kia Tigers and Roberto Petagine of the LG Twins. Lee’s 100 RBI ranks him among an elite crowd. Only 19 domestic batters have reached the 100 RBI plateau in the history of KBO.

Including Kia Tigers third baseman Kim Sang-hyun, who also drove in 100 runs in 2009, only two other third basemen have hit 100 RBI in the history of KBO.

The Giants start their winter training camp on Jan. 20, and the club is currently negotiating the contracts of 15 other players on top of Lee. The Giants’ won-pinching approach has earned the scorn of diehard baseball fans in Busan.

Lee’s numbers this season and over the course of past four seasons ranks him among the top five hitters in the KBO. Maybe Lee doesn’t deserve a raise, but to try and reduce his salary after a solid season is difficult to understand. The Giants should just pay Lee what he deserves. Let’s hope they can sign their new first baseman in time for the start of the team’s winter training camp.

Lee can use the tough winter training camp to get down to his listed weight. Shedding some girth around his waistline could actually help the rotund hitter expand his zone at the plate and become a better inside pitch hitter.


By Jason KIM [jason@joongang.co.kr]

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