Oh the tumultuous world that is top prospects. Some stories end like Disney movies, where the hero succeeds, animals can talk and are happy to do menial tasks, and everyone live happily ever after. Others end like the fairy tales those Disney movies are based on, with dark, brutal lessons that the world is a cruel, difficult place.
To make room on the 40 man roster, 24 year old Hak-Ju Lee was Designated for Assignment on September 1st, 2015. Lee passed through waivers, and was out-righted to AAA Durham, but this decision seems like a clear sign that the Rays' "shortstop of the future" will be someplace else.
Lee was once considered among the most promising shortstop prospects in the game. So much hope! So many future line-up cards that will never come to be! Now the questions is where we should slot Lee on the all-time prospect list. Perhaps above Luke Bailey, but below Drew Vettleson. How did we get here?
This tale of woe and misery begins, like many other tales of woe and misery, began with the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs signed the young South Korean SS Lee when he was just 17 years old. Hak-Ju Lee possessed excellent speed and defense, with a patient approach at the plate.
Lee’s start with the Cubs was a bit delayed by recovery from Tommy John Surgery. Sure, that’s a pretty big time surgery, but he’s not a pitcher, and his best tool is easily his speed, so shouldn’t worry too much, right?
When HJL got to start his American baseball career, he quickly showcased some of those excellent tools. In 68 games with low-A Boise, Lee hit .330/.399/.420, with 14 2Bs and 25 SBs.
Hak-Ju Lee quickly shot up the prospect rankings. Baseball America had Lee as a top 10 organizational prospect all three seasons in Chicago, moving up each year.
After his 2010 season, Lee would become a BA and Baseball Prospectus top 100 prospect and would be on the key pieces of the Matt Garza trade.
Hak-Ju Lee, along with Chris Archer, Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, and the Legend of Sam Fuld are sent to the Rays in exchange for the Spitter (Matt Garza) and the Poet (Fernando Perez).
HJL’s first season with the Rays starts in High-A Charlotte, and immediately has his best offensive season. Lee slashes .318/.389/.443, 16 2B, 11 3B(!), 4 HRs, with 28 SBs. Lee showed a slick glove with good range at short, and with plus-speed his slap-hitting offensive ability and stolen bases gave him promise on the offensive side as well.
This hype train isn’t steam powered or coal powered. This sucker is loaded with rocket fuel!
If you want the story to have a happy ending, this would be a great place to stop reading.
HJL would start 2013 season with Durham, and absolutely rocket out of the gates. In just 15 games, Lee collected 5 extra base hits and 6 steals, and walked 11 times to only 9 Ks.
That brilliant start would be cut short by a freak occurance. During a double-play attempt, Hak-Ju Lee would suffer a brutal knee injury while reaching for a wide throw. Lee would miss the rest of 2013.
GIF Credit: Cork Gaines-Rays Index
Sports medicine has advanced a great deal, so there’s hope for Lee to get right back to that awesome first 15 games, right? Right?!?
Hak-Ju Lee’s best tool is/was his speed. It’s what gave him the incredibly exciting potential that made him a top 100 prospect. Catastrophic knee injuries tend to put that in danger.
Hak-Ju Lee would return to the field in 2014, and would struggle greatly offensively. HJL would hit a measly .203/.287/.276. Perhaps even more concerning, Lee stole just 12 bases, and was caught stealing 5 times.
This season has not been much of an improvement. Leading up to being DFA’d, Lee would hit .220/.303/.304. HJL had never struck-out more than 20% in any extended time in the minors, but in 2014 and 2015 his K% skyrocketed to 24.1% and 29.2% (!) respectively. Those are Rays catcher numbers bad!
Photo credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
What does the future hold for Hak-Ju Lee? He is staying with the Rays, for now. His status as "shortstop of the future" certainly seems to be in doubt. Generally those types of guys do not get put on waivers and removed from the 40-man roster.
As a slap-hitting, no power shortstop, who strikes out over 25% of the time in Triple-A, Hak-Ju Lee was always going to face a tough challenge to make the show. Spelling even more trouble for Lee’s future is the next crop of exciting prospects rising through the ranks. Among those is Daniel Robertson, who could very well be on the move to become the Durham shortstop sooner rather than later.
The story of the "can’t miss" prospect that can and does miss all too common. For every Mike Trout there are a dozen Brandon Wood’s. And baseball will give you a thousand more chances to hope that, "this time things will work out different"! As he remains in the system, we can hope all the same.
Baseball can be a cruel sport.