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Failed Prospect: Hee Seop Choi

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Failed Prospect: Hee Seop Choi

First, the background.

20-year-old Hee Seop Choi was signed by the Chicago Cubs as a free agent in May, 1999. Sent directly to full-season baseball, he was a monster in his first look at pro pitching, hitting .321/.422/.610 in 79 games for Lansing in the Midwest League. That includes 18 homers in those 79 games, 70 RBI, 50 walks and 68 strikeouts against 290 at-bats. His OPS+ came out at a stupendously good +40 percent. Scouts were full of praise for his rapid adjustment to North America, and I gave him a Grade A- in the 2000 book.

Choi began 2000 with Daytona in the Florida State League, hitting .296/.369/.533 in 96 games. Promoted to Double-A in late July, he was even more impressive at West Tennessee with a .303/.419/.623 mark, having no problems at all adjusting to more advanced pitching. His OPS in Double-A was +47 percent. He also crushed the Arizona Fall League. Scouts even gave him positive reviews for his defense at first base. I gave him a straight Grade A in the 2001 book.

2001 was a bad year. Limited to just 77 games in Triple-A by a hand injury, he hit just .229/.313/.417. He still drew walks and kept his strikeout rate non-horrible for a young power hitter, though it was evident from watching him play that the hand injury inhibited his hitting. I reduced his rating to Grade B+, though I expected that once his hand healed he would be fine.

Choi returned to health in 2002 and had a strong season in Triple-A, hitting .287/.406/.525 with 28 homers and 95 walks, 119 strikeouts in 478 at-bats. He got into 24 games for the Cubs, hitting .180 but knocking two homers and drawing 7 walks against 15 strikeouts in 50 at-bats. I moved him back up to Grade A in the 2003 book. It was at this time that I first started hearing concerns about his ability to handle inside pitches, based on his major league exposure. I didn't think it was going to be a major problem, since I personally saw him handle inside pitches without difficulty in Triple-A. I figured he just needed some time to adjust.

The rest of the Choi story has been hashed out in different threads over the last few weeks. He hit just .218/.350/.421 for the Cubs in 80 games of sporadic playing time in 2003, getting injured, losing playing time to Eric Karros, then getting traded to Florida. He hit .270/.388/.495 for the Marlins in 95 games, which came out to a +132 OPS, which is obviously very, very good. But they shipped him off to the Dodgers, where he hit just .161 in 31 games in '04. In '05 the Dodgers used him in a platoon role and he hit .253/.336/.453, a +107 OPS, but he got caught up in political front office battles apparently. And now he's back home in Korea.

There is lots to consider here. Choi's final major league line is .240/.349/.437, +106 OPS, in 915 at-bats, obviously not anything close to what I anticipated. Choi detractors point to his struggles in Chicago and Los Angeles as proof that he was never very good. Choi supporters point to the injuries, the sporadic playing time, and the fact that he hit great for the Marlins in '04 (you can't spin a +132 OPS in 95 games as something bad). The pattern I see is that people who doubt Choi ignore the good points and people who like Choi ignore the bad points. It all counts.

I did not get to see Choi play in the majors as often as your average Cubs, Marlins, or Dodgers fan. The mental image I have of him remains the guy I saw in the minors, the guy who killed fastballs (including inside fastballs) and handled breaking stuff just fine, and who was a reasonably good defensive first baseman. Looking back on it, I don't regret the ratings I gave him. They turned out to be wrong, but based on the information I had at the time, the statistics, the scouting reports, and the personal observations, I have no regrets.

That said, even if Choi had stayed in the US and gotten more chances, based on what we know now, he would not have been the slugging superstar I expected. He would instead have panned out as a useful slugging bat, at worst a Sam Horn, in the middle a Ken Phelps, at best a Cecil Fielder. In short, I think that Choi did get jerked around and wasn't handled well, and that under different circumstances he would still be playing in the majors right now, but I also think he legitimately wasn't as good as expected. Nevertheless, worse players have had long careers.

Lessons Learned:

It's hard to be a superstar slugger. Sam Horns are a lot more common than Mo Vaughns or Jason Giambis.
The more dimensions to a player's skill base, the better.
Organizational context is important