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.