Prospect Retro: Shin-Soo Choo
One of the best hitters in baseball the last two seasons is Shin-Soo Choo of the Cleveland Indians, currently hitting .308/.417/.462 (+147 OPS) , following up a +137 OPS in '09 and a +151 OPS in '08. He is now in his prime at age 27, but let's take a look and see how he developed as a prospect.
Choo began his amateur career in Korea as a pitcher, but when the Mariners signed him (for $1.3 million) as a free agent in 2000 they moved him to the outfield, to take advantage of his speed and strength. Shades of Nick Markakis! He got off to a great start by hitting .302/.420/.513 for the Arizona Rookie League Mariners, stealing 12 bases and showing a high walk rate with 34 walks in 199 at-bats. Despite his performance, some scouts said he had problems with inside pitches. I gave him a Grade B in my 2002 book, noting that "he might have some growing pains" but would be a fine player eventually.
Moved up to Class A Wisconsin for 2002, Choo hit .302/.417/.440 in 119 games, followed by a .308/.460/.564 mark in 11 games for Class A San Bernadino. He stole 37 bases, but was caught 21 times. I liked the 70 walks he drew and expected more power to develop, giving him a Grade B+ in the 2003 book and ranking him aggressively as the Number 23 Hitting Prospect in baseball.
Returning to the Cal League for '03, Choo hit .286/.365/.459 with 18 steals for Inland Empire, posting a somewhat disappointing +9 percent OPS. Scouts began quibbling about problems with his swing again. I lowered his rating slightly to a Grade B, but noted he was still just 20 years old and still looked like a fine prospect to me.
Moved up to Double-A for 2004, Choo hit .315/.382/.462 for San Antonio, with 15 homers, 40 steals, and 56 walks in 132 games. I moved him back up to Grade B+ in the 2005 book, writing that I expected Choo to hit for more power as he matured, and that he could be "Rusty Greer with more speed."
Choo hit .282/.382/.431 in 115 games for Triple-A Tacoma in 2005, then went 1-for-18 in 10 games for the Mariners. Although his Triple-A production wasn't horrendous, his OPS dropped to just +3 percent, and there was a lot of buzz from Pacific Coast League scouts about how disappointing Choo was. Indeed, two different front office people told me that year that I had been much too enthusiastic about Choo in the past, and that his weaknesses were being exposed by better pitching. Influenced by these comments as well as his dropping production, I lowered his rating to a Grade C+ in the 2006 book.
Choo returned to Triple-A for '06 and was much better, hitting .320/.392/.496 with 26 steals in 94 games. The Mariners didn't seem to really believe in this however, and traded him to the Indians in late July for Ben Broussard. Choo hit .295/.373/.473 in 45 games for the Indians down the stretch. He lost much of '07 to injury, but has been effective ever since. He is currently a career .297/.389/.488 hitter in 1209 at-bats. His OPS+ is 135.
Looking at some comparable players:
SIM SCORES: Hack Wilson, Marty Cordova, Mitchell Page, Andre Ethier, Tommy Henrich, Aaron Rowand, Jason Giambi, Dutch Zwilling, Pedro Guerrero, and Richie Zisk.
PECOTA Comps: Ryan Church, Bernie Williams, Bobby Abreu, Bobby Higginson, Tony Gonzalez, Cleon Jones, Bob Skinner, Alex Rios, Lee Walls, and Jim Edmonds.
There are no bad players on these lists, although some of them didn't last particularly long or sustain their peaks. I like the Bobby Abreu comp in particular.
Rusty Greer, who I compared to Choo back in '04, doesn't show up on these lists, but he was a career .305/.387/.478 hitter, very similar to what Choo has done so far in raw numbers, although Greer's offensive context was friendlier and his OPS+ was 119.
In retrospect, my original assessment of Choo was closer to the mark than the assessment I made after his shaky '05 season. He's a fine, fine player.