Lion King tries to be Korea's first choice
Before switching clubs, Seung-Yeop Lee in fight for at-bats
By Stephen Ellsesser / Special to MLB.com
Lee posted big numbers at the Big Egg with the Chiba Lotte Marines in November's Asia Series, and he will look to do the same in the World Baseball Classic. And a couple weeks after the WBC wraps up, Lee will be back at Tokyo Dome in a different uniform, suiting up for the Central League's Yomiuri Giants, who signed Lee in the offseason.
A key contributor to the Marines' run of championships last season, Lee took more money to play for Japan's richest and most storied franchise, where he will hope to improve on the 30 home runs and 82 RBIs posted last season. If his performance against the CL champion Hanshin Tigers is any indication, Lee should be in line for a banner year. In Lotte's Japan Series sweep of Hanshin, Lee was 5-for-11 with three home runs and six RBIs.
And he didn't even start one of the games.
Lee, called the "Lion King" in his native Korea, played nine seasons with the Samsung Lions before leaving his homeland for greener pastures. Coming off a 2003 season in which he clobbered an Asian-record 56 home runs, Lee was hopeful the road from Korea would lead to the Major Leagues. The best offer he garnered, however, was with Lotte in Japan.
Lee was disappointed with the development, and his numbers showed it, as he struggled in his first season. Lee chased the record-setting Samsung sayonara with a weak rookie campaign, hitting just 14 home runs and driving in 50 runs while batting .250 in 100 games.
After looking a little more Lion King-like in 2005, Lee had just one worry as the Marines rolled to Interleague, Pacific League, Japan Series and Asia Series championships -- fielding.
Lee got his at-bats, but too often he was Lotte's designated hitter, as Golden Glover Kazuya Fukuura saw most of the starts at first base, Lee's position. Although Lotte promised to increase his defensive opportunities this season, Yomiuri courted Lee as a potential successor to departed legend Kazuhiro Kiyohara.
Challenging Lee for the spot is former Florida Marlins prospect Joe Dillon. Lee may have to battle for starts at first base even before the Giants open their season on March 31. Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Hee-Seop Choi (.253, 15 HR, 42 RBIs in 2005) and young first baseman Tae-Kyun Kim are also on Korea's roster. Kim is a former Rookie of the Year and was a Golden Glove winner in 2005, but the likely suspects to hold down first base are Lee and Choi, with whoever is not playing defense standing in at DH.
Lee and the Marines had to go through Samsung to capture the Asia Series crown, and in the WBC, Lee is likely to face one of his former teammates when Japan and Korea play on March 5. Five of Japan's 13 pitchers play for the Marines. Lee was all confidence when unveiled to the press at the Giants' latest acquisition.
"I will win the competition at first base," he said to the media. "If I didn't have such determination, I wouldn't have joined Yomiuri."
But before he chases dreams of superstardom with the Giants, Lee will try to win another championship, and the road starts once again in Tokyo Dome.
Stephen Ellsesser is a reporter for the Japan Times and a contributor to MLB.com's coverage of the World Baseball Classic. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.