PEORIA, ARIZONA – Lee Dae-Ho does not have the typical background of a spring training non-roster invite.
The 33-year-old slugger has superstar status in Asia after playing professionally for 15 seasons. He gave up a hefty contract and the chance to win a third straight Japanese Series championship with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to contend for a role-player position with the Seattle Mariners.
Yet, the South Korean is happy to find himself in tight competition to make the team and reach the apex of professional baseball.
“Competition always makes me a better player,” Lee said through an interpreter. “I just want to enjoy it. I just want to make the team.”
On Sunday at the Peoria Sports Complex, Lee, who is listed at 122 cm and 113 kg, dwarfed his teammates near the batting cage. Lee said he has shed about 7 kg from his playing weight in Japan. Being more nimble and quicker on defense will help Lee in his quest to get a spot on the major league roster.
Seattle manager Scott Servais said Lee and the other players vying for the backup first-base role must be able to field to make the team.
“He’s going to have to play defense, that’s how we’re built,” Servais said. “It’ll be important, he knows it’s important. We’ve talked to him about it and he’s been working with (coach) Manny (Acta), getting a feel over there and getting comfortable.”
Lee has been working out at Seattle’s complex since signing a minor league contract about two weeks before camp opened. He said he feels ready for the season.
“I’ve been playing for the last 14 years,” he said, “and I think this is the most prepared time of my career.”
Lee is competing with Jesus Montero and Gaby Sanchez to make the team as the right-handed hitter in a first-base platoon with left-handed batter Adam Lind, who will start the majority of games.
Montero, 26, has not lived up to expectations since being traded to Seattle in 2012, playing only 73 big league games in the past three seasons. He is out of minor league options.
Sanchez played the 2015 season in Japan, hitting .226 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs in 66 games for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Lee hit .282 with 31 home runs and 98 RBIs for the Hawks last season.
He spent the first 11 years of his career in South Korea with the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization. He moved to Japan in 2012, spending two seasons with the Orix Buffaloes and two more with Softbank. Lee has 323 career home runs and a lifetime .303 batting average.
Despite his massive frame, Lee says he’s not a stereotypical slugger.
“I’m not a really big home run guy,” he said. “I just try to put everything in the center (of the bat) and control the ball. So when it’s hit good, it’s automatically a home run.”
Servais has been impressed with Lee during spring training so far and understands that the player might have some catching up to do.
“It’s an adjustment period to how we practice and go about our day,” he said. “I don’t know what they do in Japan or Korea as much, but I’m sure there’s some differences there. Getting him to understand and be comfortable with our bunt plays, cutoffs and relays, being in the right spot is a big deal as well. From a manager’s perspective, you want to be able to trust that the guys you’re putting out there are going to be in the right spot. They’re not always going to make the play, but they’ve got to be in the right spot.”
Lee believes he’s already found the right spot.
“It’s a dream come true to come to the major leagues,” he said. “This is the last stop for people who play baseball.”
Pirates admit mistake
Bradenton, Florida — Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington on Sunday acknowledged the team errantly computed Gerrit Cole’s salary offer for 2016, which led to a public spat with their ace pitcher.
The Pirates initially offered Cole a $538,000 contract, which was a $7,000 increase over his base salary last year. According to Huntington, that was a franchise-record pay hike for a player with only two-plus years of big league service time.
However, Cole’s total earnings last season were $541,000 because he got a $10,000 bonus for making the National League All-Star team.
“I understand the business of this game, but it is hard to accept that a year of performance success does not warrant an increase in pay,” Cole told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Cole went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting. He was the Pirates’ starting pitcher in the NL wild-card game.
Because Cole has less than three year’s major league service time, the Pirates can impose any salary over the minimum of $507,500.
Pittsburgh uses an in-house algorithm to determine salary increases for their “zero-to-three” players. Huntington said the system weighs service time, playing time and performance.
When Cole’s figure was computed, however, his All-Star bonus was not included. Cole’s agent, Scott Boras, balked when the Pirates gave him the $538,000 offer.
“We made a mistake in the process,” Huntington said. “We didn’t have to move (the figure). We felt they made a valid point (and) we made the adjustment.”
The team raised Cole’s salary to $541,000. When Cole asked for a larger increase — something that would put him over his 2015 earnings total — the Pirates refused to budge.
“They even threatened a salary reduction to the league minimum if I did not agree,” Cole told the Tribune-Review.
Cole grudgingly signed the contract for $541,000, then told the Tribune-Review about his situation.