Zoning in on the 2016 Mariners is a daily series in which we’ll examine one player every day, 30 total, in the lead-up to Opening Day. We’ll explain their role on the field, what they’re like off of it and provide highlights and photos. On deck tomorrow: Tony Zych.
It was the signing few, if any, saw happening. Pitchers and catchers would report in less than two weeks, and Jerry Dipoto had even already said “this is our team” once earlier in the offseason—albeit, before the surprise Hisashi Iwakuma signing. So if there’d be one signing out of nowhere, why not two?
Early in the morning on February 3rd, news started to break that the Mariners had signed Dae-Ho Lee. Then it became official, and fans were left scrambling to find out the backstory. For those who haven’t, we’ll fill it in.
Lee, a 33-year-old slugging first baseman, had reached the pinnacle of the profession on the other side of the Pacific, playing in South Korea and then Japan. The last time he was on a baseball field as a professional, before Spring Training, he was celebrating winning his second consecutive Japan Series title with Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, and taking home the Japan Series MVP award in the process.
So it was on to bigger dreams–playing baseball in the best league in the world.
“I decided it was now or never, considering my age,” he said last fall in announcing his intentions to play stateside. “I talked quite a bit with my family about my decision, and they said they’d support me 100 percent. And I am confident I can show what I am capable of (in the Majors).”
He now has that opportunity, sacrificing a lot to compete for a spot as the right-handed complement to Adam Lind’s left-handed bat at first base.
“He turned down pretty substantial offers from both Korean and Japanese teams,” Dipoto said at the beginning of Spring Training. “He just wants to be here. He wanted to show that he belonged in the big leagues. He shed quite a few pounds to become a little more flexible and to be more convincing as a first baseman.”
So far, it’s been convincing, as manager Scott Servais noted Lee “moves better around the bag than I was anticipating.”
But still, it’s all about the bat for Lee, who hit 31 home runs last year in Japan, and is the only professional baseball player ever to homer in nine straight games–eclipsing Ken Griffey, Jr.’s mark by one.
“The one thing I’ve noticed about him, he does have the ability to make adjustments,” said Servais. “You may see a little bit bigger swing from him early in the count but with two strikes, he does cut down on the leg kick and try to put the ball in play.”
That ability to control the zone is one big thing to watch as the competition for the backup first base spot rolls forward, with Stefen Romero and Jesus Montero also vying for the role. It’s a battle Lee is reveling in.
“Competition always makes me a better player,” Lee said through an interpreter early in camp. “I just want to enjoy it. I just want to make the team.”
Off the Field
Being one of the best baseball players the country has produced, Lee is a big celebrity in Korea.
Lee was actually elementary school teammates with former Mariner Shin-Soo Choo.
They had a chance to catch up recently, when the Mariners played the Rangers.
More in the Zoning In on the 2016 Mariners Series:
- Norichika Aoki
- Luis Sardinas
- Chris Taylor
- Boog Powell
- Nathan Karns
- Vidal Nuno
- Justin De Fratus
- Mike Zunino
- Steve Clevenger
- Adam Lind
- Wade Miley
- Charlie Furbush
- Shawn O’Malley
- On deck: Tony Zych
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