This is the first post in what will be a semi-regular series. It seeks to cover two groups of players. First, key acquisitions to the Mariners organization, potential impact-players obtained via trade, free agency, the draft, or otherwise. Second, players already within the organization that might have a call-up to the big league club in their near future. Whichever the type, the goal is to acquaint readers with the baseballer’s background, and reasonable expectations for his future.
Who: Ji-man Choi
Where he is now: Tacoma Rainiers (AAA)
My Justin Smoak post ended without suggesting a specific resolution. I made clear my hope that the Mariners soon give up their Smoaking addiction, but didn’t claim to know the way of doing so that would most benefit the organization. I still hesitate to argue whether Seattle should ultimately trade him, dump him, or do otherwise, because only the front office can make such a decision informedly. But I do feel confident saying Smoak shouldn’t play while Jack Zduriencik decides his fate, as the M’s have someone in-house that’s at least a temporary solution.
It’s Logan Morrison, of course. Don’t believe me? Consider he hit two home runs last night, and now you do.
Kidding. Morrison is the same crappy player as Smoak, with a sprinkle of racial insensitivity on top. I’m talking about the guy in the picture, ya silly geese! Ji-man Choi is currently Tacoma’s starting first baseman (when a rehabbing Smoak isn’t blocking his way), and the M’s ought to consider giving him a ticket north.
Never considered a top-prospect, the M’s signed Choi as an undrafted free agent in July of 2009, and he began his professional career a year later. Spending most of 2010 with Seattle’s rookie-league affiliate, he impressed immediately. A left-handed hitter, Choi exhibited a great eye and gap-power, along with all the counting stats, and was named the Arizona League’s MVP after the season. His entire 2011 was lost to a back injury, but the time off didn’t seem to affect his development much, as he got right back to producing upon return.
The South Korean-native’s strength is getting on base. He walks as often as most Little Leaguers and makes contact at an above-average rate, producing a .416 OBP during his minor-league career. For reference, that number would rank Choi fifth in the majors this year. The bad news is he’ll likely see his on-base abilities drop to some extent if he’s promoted. But that qualification is at least partly tempered by the fact Choi’s K% and BB% have been improving since he joined the organization. In his first two seasons, his strikeout rate hovered between 18 and 19%. That number dropped drastically in 2013, and though it’s regressed a bit this year, Choi is currently sporting a solid (and stable) 15.5% K-rate for the Rainiers.
He’s gotten even better at drawing ball-fours than avoiding strike-threes. Across all levels at which he played between 2010 and -13, Choi maintained a BB-rate right around 13% (save a rough finish in AAA last year). That already, when seen in major leaguers, is termed “great” by FanGraphs. In 2014, though, Choi has upped that rate to an absurd 20.7% in Tacoma. Part of that is likely small sample size (he only has 58 plate appearances on the season), but it’s not insane to think some of the improvement is a natural result of Choi’s progression.
In terms of what else Choi’s shown thus far, his power is decent, if a bit underwhelming for a future first baseman: he collects a lot of doubles, but not many homers. Some of the former should transform into the latter as Choi ages, but he won’t ever enter a Home Run Derby. I can’t find anything on his defensive skills, but he did steal 10 bags during his time in the Arizona League, which hopefully means he’s at least athletic enough to field first base adequately. That said, he’s only swiped two bases since, so his speed is nothing noteworthy. If Choi’s ever valuable for the M’s, it’ll be a result of his good plate discipline.
That, of course, is a big “if,” as Choi’s game isn’t devoid of concerns. Failing to develop his power stroke at least marginally would seriously hinder his value as a first baseman or designated hitter. I also mentioned Choi missed all of 2011, and I’m guessing 20-year-olds who experience serious back injury often develop chronic problems in the area. There’s also the matter of him serving serving a 50-game suspension earlier this season, after he was caught channeling his inner-Arnold. I doubt he tests positive for PEDs again, but he would serve a year-long suspension should he, so depending on him comes with some added risk.
Taking the bad with the good, I still like Choi over either Smoak or Morrison. Yes, his current K% and BB% numbers will be hurt by a promotion. Still, if he can maintain anything close to his current rates, which aging should help with, he’ll be worth more offensively than the other two. No, he’s never been featured in a Baseball America prospect list. Then again, Smoak and Morrison always were, and now they’re terrible major leaguers. Perhaps Choi becomes one too, but at least there’s the chance he doesn’t.
Meet Ji-man Choi. I hope you and I see him at Safeco soon.