Giants Finally Make a Free Agent Splash with Jung Hoo Lee Signing

Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

After they were left at the altar by Aaron Judge and objected to the results of Carlos Correa’s physical last offseason, the San Francisco Giants have finally made a long-term splash in free agency with the addition of 25-year-old Korean center fielder Jung Hoo Lee 이정후, who is joining the team on a six-year, $113 million deal, per Jon Heyman of The New York Post. The contract has a player opt-out after four years.

Lee has been evaluated as a Top 100-quality prospect at FanGraphs since the 2020 KBO season. He was the first player in KBO history to go straight from high school to their top level of play and won Rookie of the Year as an 18-year-old in 2017. He has a career .340/.407/.491 line in the KBO, and has made elite rates of contact (roughly 5.5% strikeout rate and 11% walk rate combined the last two seasons) while playing quality center field defense.

Lee immediately becomes the best defensive center fielder in a crowded Giants outfield group that was toward the bottom of the league in production last year. He’s a plus runner with above-average range and ball skills, and a plus arm. He did suffer a fractured ankle that effectively ended his season in July (he made one pinch-hit plate appearance toward the end of the year), and the deal is still pending a physical, but as The Athletic noted, he reportedly conducted agility drills for teams recently.

The Giants had the payroll space to chase Judge and Correa, and so it follows that they probably have more room in the budget for additions beyond Lee. They are among the many teams that could feasibly target the free agent market’s better pitchers. Jung Hoo’s addition also packs San Francisco’s roster to the brim with outfielders, which perhaps creates the opportunity to acquire pitching via trade. There are no fewer than six outfielders vying for playing time around Lee. Mike Yastrzemski, under contract for two more seasons, paced the group in production last year. Austin Slater, a career .285/.374/.463 hitter against left-handed pitching, is entering his third arbitration season. Michael Conforto (one year, $18 million left on his deal) and Mitch Haniger (two years, roughly $35 million remaining) haven’t been especially healthy or productive for at least the last two seasons. Top prospect Luis Matos debuted in 2023. Blake Sabol (who can now be optioned having met Rule 5 Draft requirements), Wade Meckler, and Heliot Ramos are also on the 40-man.

The scouting and data-oriented projections for Lee are both quite strong, befitting a player who just signed a nine-figure deal. Here are Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for Lee:

ZiPS Projection – Jung Hoo Lee
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2024 .288 .346 .416 476 56 137 29 4 8 62 39 38 2 111 1 2.5
2025 .288 .348 .422 486 58 140 30 4 9 63 41 38 2 113 1 2.6
2026 .287 .348 .420 488 58 140 30 4 9 63 42 38 1 112 0 2.6
2027 .281 .343 .409 487 58 137 29 3 9 62 42 37 1 108 0 2.3
2028 .282 .345 .412 478 57 135 29 3 9 61 42 36 1 109 0 2.3
2029 .281 .344 .406 463 54 130 28 3 8 58 41 35 1 108 0 2.2

Those are the numbers of an above-average everyday center fielder. With this level of production, per Dan, ZiPS would recommend $132 million for a straight-up six-year deal. But Lee’s is a six-year deal with an opt out after the fourth year, when Lee will be 29. If he plays well enough that he thinks he’d earn more than the nearly $19 million a year he’d otherwise be slated to make in the last two years of the deal, he can opt out and cash in again. His ability to do so has value. In other words, ZiPS evaluates $113 million with an opt-out after four years as having the same value relative to projections as a six-year, $134 million contract.

Lee’s carrying tool is his bat control. He has a sweet-looking swing and entertaining all-fields approach to contact that is enabled by his hand-eye coordination and ability to manipulate the barrel. His swing is incredibly cool and fun to watch, as Lee’s open stance comes closed very early before he takes a huge stride back toward the pitcher and unwinds from the ground up. As fun as his swing is, it does bear a resemblance to Zac Veen’s early-career swing both in terms of some of the stop-and-start nature of his footwork and the way his hands fire from a dead stop.

Lee has also had a couple of seasons in which he hit for meaningful power in Korea, but that hasn’t been a consistent part of his game. He clubbed 23 homers and nearly 60 extra-base hits during his 2022 MVP campaign, but Lee experienced a substantial downtick in power during an injury-shortened 2023, and he hit double-digit home runs in just two of his seven KBO seasons. Lee’s groundball rate has typically hovered around a whopping 60%, which would put him near the top of the big league leaderboard. Readers should consider him a contact-only threat at the moment, but he has rare hitting talent, and it’s plausible that with added strength, a swing adjustment, or some other developmental intervention, the Giants could coax more power out of him over time. Here you can see what ZiPS thinks the high-end outcomes look like if that happens:

2024 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Jung Hoo Lee
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 44 14 .339 .396 .496 147 4.8
90% 40 12 .325 .386 .476 137 4.3
80% 36 11 .314 .373 .456 128 3.6
70% 33 10 .304 .364 .439 122 3.2
60% 31 9 .295 .356 .427 117 2.9
50% 29 8 .288 .346 .416 111 2.5
40% 27 7 .280 .339 .398 105 2.1
30% 26 7 .270 .330 .385 99 1.7
20% 24 6 .258 .323 .371 93 1.3
10% 21 5 .242 .305 .351 84 0.7
5% 19 4 .230 .291 .332 75 0.2

In addition to the $113 million owed to Lee, the Giants will pay the Kiwoom Heroes a posting fee of just shy of $19 million. The KBO posting system works like this: the KBO team receives a payment equal to 20% of the first $25 million in guaranteed value, 17.5% of the next $25 million, and 15% on all amounts above $50 million. So that’s $113 million plus another $18.8 million, putting San Francisco’s total outlay for Lee to just under $132 million.

There’s some risk here, as there’s going to be any time a player transitions from a league where pitchers sit 91 mph to one where they sit 95. Sample size issues make it tough to know exactly how Lee will hit big velocity in the states, as he saw fewer than 100 pitches of 94 mph or above throughout the entire 2023 season. Using Synergy Sports to isolate Lee’s performance against fastballs at or above the MLB average (93 mph and up) yields just 154 pitches combined throughout the last two seasons; he slashed .268/.348/.415 against those pitches. Bump the bottom boundary up to 94 mph and he slashed .276/.300/.379 across 96 pitches.

It may take a little time for Lee to adjust to the quality of big league stuff, but his glove will play right away. His signing brings an element of youth and excitement to the team that the Giants have lacked for the last few seasons.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Okramember
4 months ago

Can’t help but feel that Zaidi thought that he would whiff on free agents again so he panicked and gave a slap hitter $130M with an opt out. Apart from the lightening in a bottle 2021 when the entire Giants team seemed to randomly have a career year, Zaidi is starting to look like a below average front office leader. Farm is not developing much talent, lots of questionable free agent signings, struggles to attract top free agents and overpays and/or gives opt out routinely. Only real talent seems to be turning a nickel into a dime by optimizing a bunch of average-ish platoon players.

sadtrombonemember
4 months ago
Reply to  Okra

With respect to the signing specifically–you’re right, this is a lot of money, and there is some desperation going on here. The problem is that there aren’t that many strong position players in free agency this offseason. For a lot of teams, that means sitting this round out rather than giving out an extra $50M to Lee or Bellinger or Matt Chapman. But the Giants shouldn’t really do that, because they have a ton of money and their recent record seems disappointing and they need to show progress to wipe that away. Other teams like that include the Blue Jays and Mariners.

ismailadiememember
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Agreed, paying more to Bellinger with his declining power would be desperate, there is upside here

Thatguy47
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Maybe he should’ve picked up on that before making Conforto and Haniger his FA centerpieces last offseason. Not as if this weak FA class was a surprise.

Dmjn53
4 months ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

I mean they did go all out after Judge, and had a deal with Correa that they (thankfully, with hindsight) walked away from

Thatguy47
4 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

They still should’ve ended up with more than they did, though I guess you’re right that there weren’t that many great options available. Swanson signed after the Correa deal fell through so they could’ve moved onto him.

Any evidence on whether position player FA classes have become thinner in recent years with the early extensions?

https://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/majors/2003-free-agents.shtml

Been sorting by WAR3 on this and comparing it to previous years. Nothing conclusive but recent years generally look thinner (ie 2021-22 has 6.2 WAR at 20 vs 8.5 WAR at 20 in 95-76).

frankenspock
4 months ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

Any evidence on whether position player FA classes have become thinner in recent years with the early extensions?

I suspect they have largely because players are signing longer contracts. Instead of 4-5 years. they’re now going 10-12.

Last edited 4 months ago by frankenspock
Henrymember
4 months ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

bad signings in retrospect. but who the heck else was there to sign. I hope they are making some real progress in amateur scouting and drafting. one reason the dodgers stay so strong is their farm system seems to always be loaded, so they can improve the roster with trades also. they do have some interesting players in the minors but need more…

Cool Lester Smoothmember
4 months ago
Reply to  Henry

I really struggle to call either of those “bad signings,” given the years and dollars.

The signings haven’t worked out so far, but they’re on the hook for $32.5m this year and $14.5m in 2025.

Even if neither of them bounces back next year, the deals aren’t stopping them from doing anything.

(Now, if you want to say those deals are the sort of med-risk/med-reward signings that exemplify the Giants’ mediocrity during Zaidi’s tenure…I’m all ears)

Last edited 4 months ago by Cool Lester Smooth
frankenspock
4 months ago

Are you actually saying “we can’t know yet if Haniger was a bad signing”? Because we can. We’re a year into a three-year contract and Mitch is sitting at -0.2 fWAR, and now he’s about to make Mookie Betts money for Year Two regardless of whether he gets that number out of the negative.

Technically nothing is stopping them from signing anybody, but the falloff from “we’re going to sign Judge” to “we’re signing Mitch Haniger” is larger than the Grand Canyon, and it’s just natural to suggest that people might think the result was, you know, bad.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
4 months ago
Reply to  frankenspock




Huh??

The $32.5m number refers to Conforto AND Haniger, son.

frankenspock
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Oh, they are absolutely still going after Bellinger.

Pepper Martin
4 months ago
Reply to  Okra

You know who was a slap hitter with a similar open stance and similar swing, who ran groundball rates up near 60%? Derek Jeter.

frankenspock
4 months ago
Reply to  Okra

Lee would be a strong signing on a team that was already comfortably stocked with guys who could get on base, but on an offense like the Giants that often feels like an exercise in frustration, I don’t know how much help he’s going to be. Zaidi needs either 2-3 more Lees or 1-2 reliable power hitters. And the market says overpay for both of those right now, so whatever they end up with is going to be a bucket of slop.

Last edited 4 months ago by frankenspock