The Chicago White Sox continued their midseason re-tool on Friday afternoon by trading right-handed reliever Kendall Graveman to the Astros for former First Round pick, catcher Korey Lee.
Lee trudged through his first two years of college ball posting middling offensive statistics, unable to get regular reps on a talented California Golden Bears ball club. In 2019, he began to see regular playing time at catcher and rewarded Cal by making the most of his increased opportunities. In 51 games, Lee slashed .337/.416/.619 for an OPS north of 1.000 in his first season as an everyday Golden Bears player.
That’s all the Houston Astros needed to see to make Lee their surprise top selection in the 2019 draft, at No. 32 overall.
Lee profiled as a power-over-everything catcher, with a strong arm and little defensive value prior to the draft. In addition to his raw power potential, Lee showed great plate discipline and a willingness to walk that was encouraging to major league scouts who saw a chance for him to become a more well-rounded offensive contributor at the plate as he matured.
Across three levels of minor league ball in the Astros system in 2021, Lee maintained a healthy .268 batting average and mashed 12 home runs in 105 games, good for an OPS of .735, showing that Houston’s confidence in his abilities was not misplaced. His defense continued to draw middling reviews, but a cannon behind the plate made him one of the most feared catchers to run on in the minors.
In 2022, Lee was aggressively promoted to Triple-A and in a comparable sample of 104 games, he slugged a career-high 25 home runs. He’d begun selling out to his pull side to take advantage of his immense raw power, but that came at the cost of a lower batting average (.238) and a whopping 127 strikeouts against 36 walks. In addition to flashing power at the Triple-A level, Korey also showed an uncharacteristic aggression on the basepaths, swiping 12 bags while only being caught once.
His incendiary performance earned a cup of coffee with the big league club in 2022, where the raw Lee struggled in a small 12-game sample. He was relegated back to Triple-A to begin his 2023 campaign.
Top Astros catching prospect Korey Lee with a 441 ft homer pic.twitter.com/GGz2NBYB8t— Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13) April 29, 2022
So far in 2023, the 24-year-old backstop has taken care to balance his approach at the plate, and he’s making more contact than ever because of it. While that may not have been a tenable approach for a power catcher who needs to rely exclusively on home runs for production, it serves Lee’s newfound base stealing abilities well.
Through 68 games in Triple-A, Lee’s matched his 2022 stolen base total with 12 while hitting a healthy .283/.328/.406 with five homers. He’s also made strides behind the plate to become a more consistently average defender and a better all-around catcher.
It remains to be seen which version of Lee White Sox fans should expect at the major league level when he debuts for the club. This Sox team could certainly use more aggression on the basepaths and more consistent contact. To that end, a catcher that can hit .280 and swipe 20+ bags in a full season of work would be a great compliment to this roster. That said, this Sox team is at the brim in terms of raw power, and a repeat of Lee’s mashing performance in 2022 could catapult Chicago into one of the most elite power-hitting forces in the AL.
Korey Lee has a freaking arm pic.twitter.com/axjKhwYpiA— Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13) April 15, 2022
A realistic expectation for Lee, however, likely lies between the two extremes of his minor league performances. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect him to hit around .250 and knock 15-25 balls out of the park while swiping 10 or so bags in any given season. For a White Sox team that has consistently had one of the slowest players in major league baseball behind the plate, a young, speedy catcher with immense raw power potential is the perfect choice for a team looking to re-tool its image going into 2024.
Lee will likely join former Cal Golden Bear teammate and roommate Andrew Vaughn in the White Sox lineup at some point in 2023.