Jung Hoo Lee

Where Lee, Giants go from here after early end to rookie season

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Inside the Giants clubhouse, Jung Hoo Lee has become known for a lot of things in his short time with the organization. He already has some of the best bat-to-ball skills in the Majors, an ability to quickly adjust when given instruction from the coaching staff, and a fearlessness in center that has alternately been thrilling and frightening. 

But most of all, Lee's teammates and coaches know him for always having a smile on his face. He talks often about how much he loves the game, and it's not hard to see that. 

On Friday, Lee took on a more serious tone. A few minutes after the Giants announced that he would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, the offseason's biggest addition stood in the clubhouse and said the first month and a half in the big leagues was "the happiest month of my baseball career."

"This is not how I thought about ending my rooking season," he said through interpreter Justin Han. "For all of the baseball career I've had, this could be one of the most disappointing seasons I've had. For now, I'm just trying to think about it optimistically and try to think about not the past, but the future."

In Lee's immediate future, there will be a second shoulder surgery. He had a similar procedure on the same shoulder in 2018, and he said that when he hit the wall at Oracle Park last weekend, he knew that he had once again suffered a dislocation. Lee flew to Los Angeles on Thursday to see Dr. Neal ElAttrache, widely considered the best shoulder surgeon in the country. The second opinion backed the first, and in the next two to three weeks, Lee will undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum. 

The rehab process will take about six months, meaning the most expensive free-agent position player in franchise history will not see the field again until 2025 and will end his rookie season having played just 37 games. 

The good news, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said, is that every doctor who has looked at Lee is confident he will make a full recovery and be 100 percent for the start of spring training. But there's no denying this is a gut punch for Lee, the clubhouse, and a front office that built the offseason around the new center fielder and leadoff hitter.

"It's a real bummer," Zaidi said. "It felt like he really hit the ground running this season. We saw a lot of good things and it felt like it was just going to continue to get better. Beyond the excitement he created, it seemed like he was becoming kind of more and more important to our team's success, both offensively and defensively with what he did in center field.

"It is really disappointing. Again, we're expecting a full recovery and know he's going to work hard and come back strong in 2025. As we've already seen, it has created some opportunity for some of our other young players. That's the silver lining, that it's going to create an opportunity, and we have a lot of motivated young players that are looking to establish themselves. That's kind of how we see things right now. We have to move forward.

"We're really disappointed for Jung Hoo, obviously, and for ourselves and our fans. Everybody has gotten excited about what he has done so far, but he'll be back and he'll come back strong and hopefully, we can continue building on some of the momentum that some of our young players have come up and created for us."

Luis Matos will get the first shot at replacing Lee, and it should be a lengthy audition given the 22-year-old's importance to the future of the franchise. Heliot Ramos also will get a long look, and while the Giants don't view him as a center fielder, there are plenty of ways to keep him around and in a key lineup spot once the other injured outfielders get healthy.

As he started a second series without Lee, manager Bob Melvin put Jorge Soler atop the lineup. He noted that Soler has had success as a leadoff hitter before, even if he doesn't have a traditional profile, and he's all-in with the plan. 

With Soler back from the IL, and Matos and Ramos looking promising, the Giants have the bodies to try and get back on track, but Melvin admitted it would take some time for the Lee diagnosis to be digested. He met with Lee and talked about things he could do once surgery is complete, and there certainly are a lot of ways that Lee can use this time to continue to adjust to MLB and life in the United States. 

Asked about the rest of this season, Lee said it was too early to determine where he would rehab or what that process might look like. Perhaps, after the time away, Lee will come back with a different style, one that keeps him from so often flirting with danger on the warning track. 

Lee said he always tried to give 100 percent, and he never thought an injury like this would happen. He had watched others, including close friend Ha-Seong Kim, go all-out in MLB, and for six weeks, he got to live that dream. Now, everything is on hold until 2025, a depressing thought for an organization that hoped this year would allow Lee to become a building block. 

"He loves playing baseball and he loves playing for the Giants," Melvin said. "This was a significant sign for us so it's disappointing for everybody, and mostly for him. We'll find a way to do our thing without him, but he was really a key guy for us this year and he knows that. There's nothing you can do about it. You play a certain way and sometimes these things are going to happen, but yeah, it's going to take a little bit to sink in."

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