PORT CHARLOTTE — Say this for Hak-Ju Lee, he has certainly embraced life in America.
Lee, 20, the slick-fielding South Korean shortstop prospect acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade, is a sleek 6 feet 2, 170 pounds. But he will likely get a little bigger thanks to his favorite guilty pleasures, Papa John's pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"I love American food," he said.
Not to mention American Idol. Lee, who came to the United States after signing with the Cubs in 2008, serenaded a crowd at a party thrown by his host family in Class-A Boise the following season. He did his best impression of former Idol winner Ruben Studdard by singing Superstar, with the video quickly hitting YouTube.
"My friends said, 'Hey, Lee, sing really, really good.' I said, 'No chance, I don't sing.' The family said, 'Let's go, let me see.' So I go, and sing."
So how'd he do?
"I was good," he said.
But Lee is a better fielder than singer. He is ranked as the No. 92 overall prospect by Baseball America, and the Rays believe he can be another shortstop of the future. Lee will likely start in Class-A Charlotte, and because of his defensive skills and foot speed, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Lee has "the ingredients to be an above-average player at a position that's extremely difficult to fill out."
"He's got some very interesting attributes," Friedman said. "Really good contact-ability, really good line-drive approach, works a count well, and is a plus-plus runner and above-average defensive shortstop. With that profile, he has a chance to really impact a major-league team one day."
Friedman reiterated that acquiring Lee doesn't mean the organization has lost confidence in its 2008 top pick, shortstop Tim Beckham, who had struggled in his first few pro seasons and will likely start in Double A this year. Friedman said there's a real scarcity in quality shortstop prospects in the minor leagues, so having two is valuable.
"A lot of people read into it that it meant we didn't think Tim Beckham was a shortstop, and that's absolutely not the case," Friedman said. "But if you're going to be rich somewhere, you absolutely want it to be at shortstop."
Lee, a left-handed hitter, doesn't provide much power, with just three homers the past two seasons. But he hit .282 last year for Class-A Peoria, including 32 stolen bases.
"I need more," he said. "Maybe 45-50."
Those who have seen Lee play know what kind of impact he can have on a game.
"He's just fast; he flies," said outfielder Brandon Guyer, another former Cubs prospect acquired in the Garza trade. "Good arm, good hitter. He can do everything. He's a good one, man. Definitely keep your eye out for him; he can play."
Right-hander Chris Archer said: "He plays his game. He bunts, he hits the ball on the ground and he can fly. His hands are nice, his range is unbelievable."
Lee has only played baseball since he was 11, when an school coach plucked him off the soccer field: "The elementary coaches say, 'You wanna play baseball?' I say, 'Okay, let's do it.' I love baseball now."
Lee believes he needs to improve in a lot of areas, but he is willing to put in the extra work, like he did to learn English, taking classes twice a week after workouts. He has heard the comparisons defensively to Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, 20, who was promoted last year from Double A and played 125 games in the majors. Cubs minor-league infield instructor Franklin Font told MLB.com that Lee's range is better than Castro.
"Castro's a really good player. After this year's trade, I need more workouts, so maybe I can go to the major leagues," Lee smiled and added, "so I can show the Cubs."