New Rays talent Lee intent on making Show
Korean shortstop made great strides in Cubs' farm system
CHICAGO -- At least Hak-Ju Lee will have some company when he reports to the Rays' camp this spring.
The Korean shortstop was one of five Cubs players traded to Tampa Bay on Saturday in exchange for pitcher Matt Garza and two Minor Leaguers. Lee heads to the Rays along with outfielders Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer, pitcher Chris Archer and catcher Robinson Chirinos.
This past year at Class A Peoria, Lee hit .282 in 122 games with 32 steals, 22 doubles and 85 runs. In his first pro season in 2009, he batted .330 with Class A Boise. Not only did Lee improve his baseball skills in his second pro season, but he was also more comfortable living in America.
"I learned a lot over the season," Lee said during an October interview in Mesa, Ariz., where he was taking part in the Cubs' instructional league. "Leaving the hotel and being with the team was much easier. I have a lot of friends now and have learned a lot of English. It was much easier."
The good news is that he doesn't limit himself to easy-to-interpret menus at McDonald's all the time.
"I can go anywhere," Lee said.
The easygoing shortstop should make friends quickly. Lee impressed the Boise booster club after the 2009 season when he serenaded them by singing The Carpenters' song, "Superstar." You can catch a glimpse of that performance in a YouTube video.
Cubs Minor League hitting coach Min Sung acted as interpreter for this interview, but Lee often answered the question on his own in English.
"It's still hard," Lee said, "but it's getting a little easier."
So is baseball. Lee, who turned 20 on Nov. 4, has only been playing since he was 12. He was on the soccer team when the baseball coach at his Seoul school saw him and asked Lee if he would switch.
"The coach begged him to play baseball for one week, and that's how he started playing," Sung said.
Said Lee: "Baseball is much better."
The slender infielder was being groomed as a leadoff man. He had 32 steals in 2010 -- which would have easily led the Cubs, whose top base-stealer was Ryan Theriot with 16.
"It wasn't that many," Lee said. "I wanted more."
"Fifty," Lee said.
When asked about his big league dream, Lee didn't hesitate.
"Wrigley Field," he said. "To play shortstop, be the leadoff hitter."
But that was before the trade. Lee definitely has the competitive fire to get to the Major Leagues. During a drill at Fitch Park in Mesa, Cubs Minor League infield instructor Franklin Font was timing how long it took three shortstops to throw from short to first. If Lee didn't win his round, he would plead with the coach: "One more, please."
"He's more mature," Font said. "Every time he plays, he gets better. Baseball is different in Korea than here, than in the Dominican, than in Venezuela. He's learning about playing Minor League baseball. He's better in the clubhouse, better outside the clubhouse."
Lee has had help. Font said some of Lee's teammates, like second baseman Logan Watkins, have made the Korean feel more comfortable in the U.S.
"I still need to learn, I still need a lot of practice," Lee said. "Hitting, defense, everything. I need to work on hitting a lot."
His parents were able to make the trip from Seoul to Peoria, Ill., to see their son play for the first time this season. They had planned on coming again in 2011. Where he'll be assigned won't be determined until the Rays see him in Spring Training, but one thing is certain: the town will be smaller than Seoul, which has more than 12 million people.
"When I was playing games, it was fine," Lee said of Peoria. "Outside of baseball, there was nowhere to go."
This offseason, Lee trained with a high school and college baseball team at home. He is motivated. Asked when he wants to be in the big leagues, Lee said quickly: "Right now."
But last May, the Cubs promoted 20-year-old Starlin Castro from Double-A Tennessee. He batted .300 in 125 games, setting a Major League record with six RBIs in his debut May 7 against the Reds.
"If I work hard over the winter in Korea, it's possible I can go to the big leagues next year," Lee said.
That will be up to the Rays. Castro showed his youth and inexperience at times on the field, committing 27 errors. Font went to the Dominican Republic this winter to work with the youngster on his defense. He's hit more fungoes than he can count to both Castro and Lee.
"[Lee's] range is better," Font said. "Remember, Castro has played one year in the big leagues. [Lee's] range is awesome. He's quick. He's fast. He likes to compete, like Castro does."
Some baseball people who have seen both feel Lee is better defensively than Castro.
"I appreciate the people who say I'm better than Castro," Lee said, "but I'm not right now, not yet. I saw that he moved up to the big leagues and I will work hard to get there."
When Lee is playing in the U.S., he misses his family and Korean food. When he returns to his country, what does Lee miss about the U.S.?
"I'm going to miss baseball the most," Lee said. "I can't wait for next season."
And a new team.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.