Remember Choi?

This is the first of a few reader-submitted topics from the Twitterverse. Basically, it’s my small way of giving back to you folk who endure me on a daily basis. The first topic was suggested by a pair of my favorite baseball writers: Tommy Bennett and Shawn Hoffman. Both of Baseball Prospectus’ employment and both are masters of their craft. Bennett is also master of his magnificent beard, while Hoffman mastered this nifty Google Chrome add-on.

Cubs’ fans were well accustomed to left-handed first baseman by the time Hee-Seop Choi climbed the ivy. Mark Grace manned the position for more than a decade. The illustrious Matt Stairs and Fred McGriff split the majority of the playing time once Grace signed with Arizona. Both were lefties with endearing cult qualities; namely great mustaches. Choi was a product of the Cubs’ international scouting efforts

Baseball America named him the Cubs’ top prospect in 2003, while ranking him as the 22nd best prospect overall. They praised his short stroke and power potential. Potential that would never be realized, although that would be a common theme amongst fellow Cubs’ prospects David Kelton and Nic Jackson. Choi tore up the minors. He hit 45 homers in 810 Triple-A at-bats between the ages of 22 and 24. The Cubs decided Choi was ready for Major League exposure on a consistent basis in 2003. And boy, did they look right.

Coming into an early June affair with the New York Yankees (famous for the Texas heat match-up occurring between Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens), Choi had a line of .244/.389/.496 with seven homers in a shade under 170 plate appearances. It was on that day that Choi’s career took a drastic turn. In the top of the fourth, Jason Giambi would hit a pop fly that neither Choi or Wood efficiently called. They collided, and in a disturbing scene, an ambulance would enter Wrigley Field through the right field fence. Choi would suffer a concussion and miss most of the month. Upon his return, he would hit .164/.263/.269 in 77 plate appearances as Eric Karros became the starter.

Choi would be traded to the Florida Marlins for Derrek Lee in the off-season. A deal that looked like a win for the Marlins, if Choi could live up to his potential. Through 340 plate appearances, he looked well on his way. He was hitting .270/.388/.495 with 15 homers. The Marlins traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, though, in the Brad Penny trade. Choi would go homerless over his next 76 2004 plate appearances while posting a .531 OPS. He would spend 2005 with the Dodgers too, posting a .789 OPS and hitting another 15 homers in 368 plate appearances, but they would non-tender him in the off-season.

Choi would then be claimed off waivers by the Boston Red Sox in March of 2006 and would sign a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the 2007 season. He would sign alongside some guy named Carlos Pena, in what amounted to a battle between the two former top prospects with loads of power to become the Rays’ eventual first baseman. Pena won, and Choi has since found a home in the Korean leagues.

It’s hard to really put Choi’s career in perspective. What isn’t hard is seeing why general managers like Larry Beinfest, Theo Epstein, and Andrew Friedman saw in Choi. His power was legitimate. He walked 13% of the time during his big league career and struck out around a third of the time. His greatest shortcoming was a hellacious time against southpaws. His career wOBA is .341 overall, but only .279 against lefties. Managers were well aware of the struggles and impressively Choi only saw 106 plate appearances against lefties, and 980 versus righties.

Choi celebrated his 31st birthday eight days ago. Presumably his Major League career is over. The ending was pretty bland and in 100 years Choi is going to be less than a footnote in baseball history. He’ll be a journeyman or something. But aren’t journeymen supposed to stink? Choi was a part of five different organizations in five seasons time despite being an above average hitter with a terrible platoon split while batting from the side where having a terrible platoon split still means starting 60-70% of the games. Heck, insert him in the Mets’ lineup tomorrow and they become better because of it — although I suppose the Mets would only be interested in the 20-year-old version of Choi.

Maybe Choi hated American life or just missed Korea. I can feel him on both, but I do find it disappointing that nobody gave Choi 450 plate appearances to go with that trip to the Home Run Derby.

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25 Responses to “Remember Choi?”

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  1. aswb83 says:

    He sure had a knack for collisions, eh? Just ask Scott Rolen.

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    • WY says:

      I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned in the article. That play changed Rolen’s career (for the worse).

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  2. SamC says:

    I remember watching that Cubs v Yankees game as it was the FOX Saturday afternoon game. That collision was brutal.

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  3. bDogg says:

    Good article, I grew up a cubs fan, so its easy for me to remember his star potential. He could potentially be a solid replacement player for a lot of teams, if a team were willing to give the guy a chance.

    Other teams that could consider Choi in theory, Baltimore has Garret Atkins at first, Choi could provide a backup, situational hitter in case Atkins continues to struggle.

    Washington: If the Nationals do make the smart move and move a valuable Dunn midseason, they would need a replacement at first. The Nationals currently don’t have many 1st base options in the minors unless your truly considered either Marrero or Norris as future 1stbaseman.

    The giants obviously weren’t convinced of Ishikawa’s talent, though Huff is hardly a solution at this point. Choi is probably just another risk.

    Colorado? Helton? He is old, bad back…

    Mets as you said.

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  4. Aaron/YYZ says:

    Part of the problem when Choi was with the Dodgers was the incredibly erratic playing time alloted to him by Jim Tracy. Choi would have a couple of really good games, then an 0/4 and find himself on the bench for 2-3 games. Look at his playing time in July/August of 2005.

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  5. Matt K says:

    He’s had some issues back in KBO, with some more injuries. i think this past season in kbo was his first legitimately good season. he’ll need a few more of those before a major league team looks at a 30something player. he would probably get more exposure if he went and played in japan and tore up that league….

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  6. JR says:

    You miss Korea?

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  7. FWIW, Choi signed a 400 million won deal.

    “Choi, the former major leaguer, signed a 350 million won contract with the Tigers midway through the 2007 season but after a bad year in 2008, his salary was cut to 200 million won last season.

    But in 2009, …helped the Tigers to their 10th Korean Series trophy….Choi hit .308 with 33 dingers and 100 RBIs.

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    • Bradley says:

      I’m glad Choi’s at least doing well in Korea. I certainly feel bad for what happened to him here.

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    • B N says:

      I totally just did the conversion on that, and he got league minimum around here. I’ll take a guy for 300k to win my national series, haha.

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  8. jaw says:

    I only attend MLB games sporadically, but I’ve had very interesting luck — for example, I saw Mark Buehrle’s no-hitter against the Rangers, and cheered (yes, even as a Cubs fan) when he picked off the only baserunner he allowed — Sammy Sosa. The crowd went wild.

    I was at that Cubs Yankees game that featured the Wood v. Clemens matchup — and it was the single most exciting baseball game I have ever attended.

    It had a real playoff atmosphere. Clemens was stalled at 299 wins, going for 300, and the Yankees fans in Chicago came out of the woodwork to root for the Rocket. As I said to one of them that day, well, I think our Texan might just beat your Texan.

    When the Cubs won that game, I thought they were really going to do something special that year. They very nearly did.

    The Choi-Wood collision was, by the way, utterly terrifying. The entire crowd gasped. I think Choi somehow made it worse by trying to avoid Wood — he contorted his body and his neck in a way that seemed unnatural.

    I really hoped Choi would make a comeback, because I thought he had great skill with the bat and excellent selectively. I recall seeing an 11-12 pitch AB in one game where he just kept fouling them off, fouling them off, fouling them off. Although as I recall, he was unable to reach base during that at bat. Is that some kind of metaphor for Choi’s career in the States?

    I’m glad to hear he is doing well. Nice work on this article.

    One more thing about that Clemens-Wood matchup – the hit that cost Clemens the win was, I believe, Eric Karros’ first HR as a Cub. Clemens had put some runners on (I think 2 were aboard) and was removed from the game for a relief pitcher (I don’t remember who).

    Karros came up to bat. I said to the fan in front of me — I didn’t even know him — that Karros was the LA Dodgers’ all-time HR leader, so “you’d think he could hit just one home run as a Cub.” Karros went yard at the very next pitch. I hugged that guy like he was my long lost brother. I think we high-fived for 10 minutes.

    Just another reason to love baseball.

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  9. Michael says:

    I did not remember Choi fondly as a Marlins fan until I checked his stats recently when reviewing past Marlins trades. I was shocked to see he was some 15 or so runs better than average during that monster first half, which makes me wonder why we bothered to make the trade for Paul Lo Duca in the first place. Dealing a top prospect who was performing and a decent pitcher (who turned into a really good one for a few years) for 3 win catcher, Encarnacion, and Guillermo Mota could not have seemed like a good call.

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  10. lieiam says:

    i remember when choi was a dodger and it would drive me crazy how he would randomly be benched and i think they would play a catcher at first base instead… i figured choi was victimized by a battle between the gm and the manager and tracy didn’t want him and didn’t like to play him, which i always thought was pure stupidity as i think choi was the best player the dodgers had to man first base.

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    • Xeifrank says:

      Yes, that would be Jim Tracy – the idiot manager of the LA Dodgers for a few seasons. Catcher Jason Phillips couldn’t throw out a runner, nor throw the ball accurately back to the pitchers mound, so in Tracy’s great wisdom he moved his non hitting catcher to first base and Choi to the bench. At one point Choi got red hot, hitting three HRs in one game, but Tracy figured it was best to put that kind of power on the bench so the goggled catcher didn’t have his feelings hurt.
      vr, Xeifrank

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  11. wobatus says:

    Choi reminds me of another former top 1B prospect. Roberto Petagine. Not similar, but just that they both put up nice minor league numbers and never really got the chance to shine in the majors. Petagine I think became a star in japan.

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  12. FreeRedbird says:

    In KBO, you should play at least 7 full seasons to negotiate with overseas teams, only under his team’s permission(virtually impossible). If you want to talk freely with foreign organizations, you should be a free agent, which requires 9 full seasons.

    Choi will be a free agent at end of the 2016 season, if he stays healthy and avoid another collision. It seems like his career in the US was effectively ended when he signed with the Tigers in KBO.

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    • FreeRedbird says:

      Well, I’ve researched some more and found this: KBO applies some different rules to players who have experience in foreign baseball leagues. They can become a free agent after only 4 full seasons. So, Choi will be able to knock the door of some MLB teams at the end of 2011 season.

      Sorry for confusing.

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  13. ChadMOKM says:

    I don’t understand the people saying Choi was victimized by Tracy or was never given the chance to succeed. People talk as if he would have been a superstar had he not been platooned or something.

    Come on now, let’s be honest, his career high OPS was .819, he couldn’t hit lefties at all, and it’s not like he caught fire after moving organizations, as he even struggled to excel in Korea.

    Everybody cites his first half 15 HR production with the Marlins as evidence of what could have been had he been left alone, but do we make excuses like this for anybody else? Sorry, but the way his career played out after that half season of baseball makes it much more likely that it was a fluke showing rather than superstar potential. If the skills truly existed, and the Dodgers made a mistake, somebody would have given him a chance.

    Perhaps injuries did sap his skills, or at least I would hope they did. Because if not, it’s abundantly clear that he wasn’t all he was hyped to be, and he simply was sackridden to death because had good plate discipline, it was DePodesta, and he was a sabermetric type of player.

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  14. fhomess says:

    I remember being at that game at Wrigley where Choi collided. What an awful collision. My wife and I were in Chicago to attend the wedding of a former coworker of hers. I left early to get to Wrigley for the game while she stayed behind. I took a lot of flack for my Yankees shirt as I was there to see Clemens win #300. He was pitching well when Torre pulled him for Juan Acevedo with 1 out and 2 on in the 7th. The next batter was Choi’s replacement, Eric Karros. I can’t remember if his homer was on the first pitch or not, but it seemed rather inevitable when Torre took the ball away from Clemens in that situation. Choi was a favorite of mine, so in some ways there was some justice there. I do remember that while there was some conversation about the awful collision after the game, most of it focused on how Clemens didn’t get the chance to either win or blow the game himself. Not that any of our Cub fan friends were upset about it.

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