For the first time this week, Prospect A-Z didn’t cover a shortstop… kind of. Casey Kelly in the San Diego organization played both ways until 2009 when the Red Sox, his original organization, made him finally focus on pitching. Allowing him to play shortstop at the start of his career was a courteous move by Boston to convince him to sign instead of going to play QB at Tennessee, and I’m sure the large signing bonus didn’t hurt either. He was a key piece in the Adrian Gonzalez trade last winter and he could be pitching in the middle of San Diego’s rotation soon. We’ll get back to shortstop today with Tampa Bay’s Hak-Ju Lee.
Hak-Ju Lee, SS, Tampa Bay Rays (2011: A+ Charlotte, AA Montgomery)
Since the 2008 draft, it was assumed that Tim Beckham would be the shortstop of the future for the Rays. After just one season in the organization, Lee has moved in front of Beckham as the team’s best shortstop prospect. Questions about Beckham linger; he’s essentially held serve at every level, never performing poorly enough to not be promoted the next season but never really standing out either. Does he still have the tools? Can he play shortstop? Can he hit for power?
Lee on the other hand enjoyed a breakout season with the Rays in 2011. He’s always had great tools, and for the first time in his brief pro career, they clearly translated into in-game performance. With Charlotte in the Florida State League, he hit .318 with a .389 OBP and .443 SLG. That was more power than he previously displayed, but the increase in extra base hits was primarily thanks to his speed allowing him to turn doubles into triples. Like Jurickson Profar on Tuesday, Lee’s solid plate approach sets him apart from a lot of prospects.
The Cubs always try to maintain a presence scouting amateur talent in Asia, and Lee was one of their biggest finds. He would be a five tool player if he hit for more power, but he’s still expected to add strength as he gets older and hit for more extra base hits than he does now. He has great speed, and he has the potential to hit at the top of a lineup in the majors when combined with his patient plate approach. He has good bat control and makes consistent contact, and despite having Tommy John surgery a few years ago, has a strong arm to go along with great range to make him a very good defender.
Yet the Cubs still parted with him in the Matt Garza trade. He was considered the second prospect in the deal behind Chris Archer, but due to Archer’s struggles and Lee’s strong 2011 season, Lee is now considered the better prospect. They may have felt he was expendable because Starlin Castro was already manning the position in the majors, but it’s expected that he has to move to another position at some point in his career. The Cubs must’ve believed they could contend when they made the trade, and it’s now clear that a rebuilding franchise could’ve used the prospects.
He was promoted to AA Montgomery for the last month of the season when the Rays bumped Beckham up to AAA. He struggled in 100 at bats in the Southern League, but that’s not uncommon for 20 year olds reaching that level. Despite hitting below .200, Lee was still able to show patience and hit for roughly the same amount of power he showed at Charlotte, so it wasn’t a total disaster.
Lee heads a Rays organization that suddenly seems very deep at shortstop. Some players may have to move off for defensive reasons or may not develop their bats enough to reach the majors, but it’s fair to say that there are about seven intriguing names in the system currently playing the position. They’re so deep at the lower levels that at least one or two will have to rotate in and out at different positions to get at bats. Joining Lee and Beckham on the depth chart are three highly touted 2011 draftees, Jake Hager, Brandon Martin and Johnny Eierman. Derek Dietrich from the 2010 class provides a solid bad, and Juniel Querecuto received a sizable bonus signing out of Venezuela.
Lee will start back at Montgomery in 2012 and likely experience more success. He represented the World squad in the Futures Game in consecutive years, and he could easily make it three in a row. With the Rays’ recent struggles at shortstop, barring a Tim Beckham breakout, Lee could be a long term answer at the position. Jason Bartlett wasn’t able to maintain his fluky 2009 statistics, and Reid Brignac regressed badly at the plate. Lee could debut at some point in 2013 and may not give up the position after that.
Prospect A-Z will wrap up this week with the Rays’ rookie strikeout sensation.