A quiet San Francisco Giants offseason has started to finally make some noise. A few days after the Shohei Ohtani cork was popped out of the bottle, the Giants signed their biggest free agent contract since Johnny Cueto, inking center fielder Jung-hoo Lee to a six-year deal.
The NY Post’s Jon Heyman first reported the deal, noting that it’s a $113 million contract with an opt-out after the fourth year. It’s unclear if that $113 million includes the posting fee, as Lee is coming over from the KBO, and it’s not known if the annual payments are spread evenly over the course of those six seasons.
UPDATE: The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly reports that the figure does not include the posting fee. Though it’s worth noting that the posting fee does not count against the team’s payroll.
Jung Hoo Lee to Giants. 6 years, $113M. opt out after 4 years.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 12, 2023
The Giants' $113 million investment in Jung Hoo Lee does not include the posting fee, which amounts to roughly an additional $19 million. That's a $122 million investment, which blows away most projections.— Andrew Baggarly (@extrabaggs) December 12, 2023
Lee is a superstar in Korea, where he won five consecutive Gold Glove awards from 2018 through 2022, culminating in an MVP campaign in 2022. He hit .329/.421/.575 that season (.996 OPS), with 23 home runs and more than twice as many walks as strikeouts. He had a down year in 2023 as he fought through an ankle injury (though he was still fantastic), but the Giants scouted him heavily, with GM Pete Putila watching him in person on multiple occasions.
Some scouts have questions about Lee, primarily whether his elite center field defense will play in the Majors, and if his contact tool is enough to overcome his lack of power (he had just 65 home runs in nearly 4,000 plate appearance is the KBO). But it’s not hard to see why San Francisco is enamored with him: his eye and hit tool are fairly fantastic, and the team is desperate for athleticism and up-the-middle defense. While it’s easy to see Lee landing on a floor of distinctly average offense and quality corner defense, it’s equally easy to dream on a ceiling where he contends for the batting title, steals a lot of bases, and plays exceptional center field defense.
The Giants were desperate to upgrade center field, and Lee and Cody Bellinger were the only quality targets in free agency. By getting the former for about half the price of the latter, the Giants are preserving even more money to chase other free agents like Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, and Matt Chapman.
Just as importantly, Lee only just turned 25 years old, so he fits the Giants timeline very well. He’s someone they can build around as they try to establish a young core.
Signing Lee could have a huge domino effect for the Giants. Lee’s best friend is Ha-seong Kim, the San Diego Padres star middle infielder who developed a very close relationship with current Giants manager Bob Melvin. Kim has a mutual option next offseason that, barring a disastrous year, should be an easy no, making him a free agent. It’s pretty easy to predict that the Giants will be favorites to land Kim next year, though that’s putting the cart ahead of the horse.
Speaking of Kim, one can never know exactly how stats will translate from league to league. But in Kim’s seven years in the KBO, he hit .294/.373/.493. After a slow first year in the Majors, he’s been a comfortably above-average bat the last two seasons. Lee, in the same league, over the same number of seasons, at the same ages, hit .340/.407/.491. If his offense translates the same way Kim’s did, the Giants could have a star on their hands.
Welcome to the Giants, Jung-hoo! I can’t speak for everyone, but my goodness am I happy to see you here.