Whither Choi?
The missing man in M's system rankings

This is really starting to bug me.

MLB.com midseason-top 20 prospect list: no Choi
Prospect Insider top 20: no Choi
Fangraphs top 15 for 2014: no Choi

Marc Hulet at Fangraphs, who's work I'm generally a fan of, explains thusly:

I grade first basemen and relievers the toughest when doing these lists. Choi doesn’t have the impact power you look for from a 1B. His good statistical results have come in A-ball so take them with a grain of salt. He also missed 2010 with back problems and they have a tendency to re-surface.


That's something I can't really agree with.  Let me clear this up for you right now: Choi is the second-best hitting prospect in the Ms system, and I can guarantee you the Ms are thinking along those lines as well.  You do not promote somebody twice in the same season if you don't believe in them, I don't care what the injury situation in AAA was.


Let's start with what we know: Choi was signed as a third baseman, moved to catcher because of his strong arm and work habits, fractured his SPINE somehow (ouch!) and lost a year+ of developmental time due to back surgery.  When he'd been in the lineup, however, he'd hit - not for HR power but he put up a cool .378/.459/.541/1.000 in rookie ball as a teen (much as Billy Butler did). The Ms liked him so much they threw him into the fire in the Cal League for 50 PAs of emergency duty - and he put up a .300 batting average with walks while hitting 3 or 4 levels over his head.

Then the broken back, which threw him off the catching position and tossed our plans for him into the wind. He lost all of 2011 and half of 2012, but came back at age 21 with a move to a 1B/DH fallback position. He then put up comparable numbers in the MWL to some guy named Miguel Sano, who is a top-10 prospect in all of baseball as a young third base wrecker.  Sano had more pro at-bats coming into 2012 than Choi.

So in 2013, the Ms start Choi off in a warm-weather clime, figuring he already conquered the Midwest League with a .420 OBP and a nice little up-tick in HR production from his teen rookie ball days.

All he did was lead the Cal League in OPS for half a year to earn a promotion to AA. He wasn't good, he was outstanding regardless of park quirks, especially considering his experience level or lack thereof. What did the Ms think of this 1.000+ OPS performance that Fangraphs dismisses with a wave of a hand?

“This is legit,” said Mariners minor league field coordinator Jack Howell, who oversees minor league coaches and players throughout the farm system...

He was (a) prospect before, and he had a horrible back surgery,” Howell said. “He did a ton of rehab down in extended (spring training) for a year. We really loved his swing, but he said he couldn’t catch anymore so we put him at first.”

Choi has done nothing but hit since recovering from back surgery. “We sent him to (Class A) Clinton, and he hit there,” said Howell. “We brought him to instructional league, and he hit. We sent him to Australia, and he only hit about .340 there. We brought him to spring training, and he killed it there.”

But surely the upper minors would prove his undoing.  In AA he started off cold as ice (his BABIP for the year in AA began in the low .200s, winding up at .270) and still posted a .870 OPS, good for a top-10ish finish THERE as well. Bad luck and he still posted upper echelon numbers.  What kind of company was he in? Well, Puig and Baez outhit him (one of them a pro sensation now, the other maybe the best prospect in the Cubs org), but he was in the next group down.  Marcus Simien (top-10. maybe top-5 prospect for the White Sox), Derek Dietrich (same for the Marlins), Joc Peterson (top-5 for the Dodgers)... Choi certainly SEEMS to be keeping pretty elite company.  Simien and Dietrich are infielders though, so they can have glove value that Choi doesn't have.  Is that enough have them as top-5 prospects and him as nothing?

He only has a thousand plate appearances in the minors. He's ROCKETED from rookie ball to AAA in less than two years of full-time plate appearances, and very well-informed minor league people still think either a) he's a mirage or b) it doesn't matter because he's "only a hitter." And has injury concerns. Shall we go through the list of fragile hitters who still have value to their teams and on prospect lists?

Is a cracked vertebrae from 2+ years ago really the makings of chronic issues, or just an excuse to leave him off the list?  Anthony Rendon has busted both ankles multiple times but somehow rated highly for the Nats (again, I'm sure being a glove infielder helps his value), Josh Hamilton is often a walking wound, plenty of great hitters have had early injury concerns... but is this about Choi or about the weird ratings for a hitter manning a hitting position?

Choi has not demonstrated 30 HR power yet.  Doesn't mean he won't - he's a lefty with a very nice stroke and some heft - but he hasn't yet.  When he does, maybe other prospectors will increase their rankings for him because that seems to be the cutoff for making a nice prospect list.


But in the meantime, if Choi is a first baseman and DH, how does he stack up to other 1B/DH in the minors?

Jonathan Singleton, 22, LH 1B for the Astros: .280/.386/.457/.844 career, struggled in AAA in half a season last year, rated #27 prospect in all the minors before 2013 by both BA and MLB.

Mike Olt, 24, RH 1B for the Cubs: .258/.365/.479/.844 career, struggled in AAA also last year, #22 prospect in minors for 2013 by both BA and MLB.

Max Muncy has some of that flavor in the under-rated department.  Oakland drafted him in 2012 in the 5th round and he's put up a .274/.382/.463 line, which might be good enough to get a look for them this spring. Of course, he did that in the Cal League and the last couple months in AA, which means Choi stomped on his numbers too.

Vogelbach for the Cubs put up nice numbers and a .824 OPS in the Midwest League, which Choi outdid by 60 points when he was in the MWL with the same number of pro at-bats. He's a top 10 talent for the Cubs.

Dom Smith was a first round pick for the Mets who was adorable in rookie league, except Choi crushes his numbers there as well. He'll be a top-5 prospect for them this year.

There's Miles Head (3B/1B with a .830 career OPS), Hunter Morris (.808 career OPS, just had his age 24 season in AAA), Dickerson (OF/1B in the Pirates org, .827 career OPS through 3 years @ age 23), Griffin (huge guy, bad zone control, just failed AA at 24), Cron (ha)...

Ji-Man Choi, 22, .309/.411/.511/.922 career, starting in AAA in 2014. Unrated by anyone.

I'm not leaving off any tremendous 1B prospects I can think of (DJ Peterson potentially, but let's not complicate things). Singleton really IS rated as the best first base prospect in the minors. It's pretty thin right now, so Choi looking as good as or better than ALL of them isn't saying a whale of a lot... but then shouldn't a hitter still figuring it out while still young and inexperienced in the upper minors - who is leading all comers in several stats - be rated SOMEWHERE on a top-20 list? Or a top-10 list of 1B prospects? Something?

As I said, I think he's our second-best hitting prospect, and that's because DJ wants to stay at third and I want to see if he can. I've comped Choi to Nick Johnson in the past, because when Nick was healthy all he did was stroke doubles and get on first (via walks and HBP). Choi isn't afraid to be hit either, and while I don't expect him to get 110 walks in a season like Nick the Stick did, I do expect a 35/20 power guy with a really healthy OBP and a very solid average. For the record, that's basically Olerud's offensive profile minus a few singles.

Choi is no Olerud on defense, but I'd take half the equation and be pretty darn happy.  If you want a more modern comp, though, then imagine Shin-soo Choo without his Kryptonite-level weakness against same-handed pitching.

Yeah, I'd take that at first base too. Whenever I wonder if I'm hallucinating about player value, I just remember USSM's assertion that Choo was a 4th outfielder with bad defense and not enough power for a corner, right before he was traded. And he's only a 20 HR guy even now, so weren't they right?

Maybe not.  Power at a bat position is nice, but hitting is better. Ji-Man Choi is a hitter first, and that's not at all a bad thing.





I always thought it was weird that a 1B who doesn't hit 35 homers is somehow discounted.
G, it sounds like you're describing Mattingly, after '86. Even after those three HOF years, Donnie Baseball was a heck of a hitter. Mattingly was a 20 year old in AA and OPS'ed .818. He had 770 MiLB PA's under his belt when he entered AA. Choi was 22 (but with a lost year) when he get to AA. He OPS'ed .862. He had 710 MilB (and a missing year) under his belt when he got there.
Mattingly had only 37 homers in 1822 MiLB AB's. I seem to remember him having more than enough power in NY! Choi has 28 HR's in 844 AB's.
He'll hit the ball out often enough.
Given his past performance, he'll hit impressively in Tacoma this year (and probably in ST). Here's the question. When does he get the "Come to Seattle" phone call? Before September? I wouldn't be surprised.
And does he have a chance to play Smoak into oblivion, early in the year?
If I'm Smoaky, I know my Seattle days hang in the balance of my early season performance.


In the last 10 years, you know how many player-seasons a first base have had 30+ homers? 82 seasons.
So you'd think 8 guys a year do it, that's pretty reasonable for a top notch first baseman.
How many over 35? Just 41. You lose HALF the seasons just by expecting 5 more homers.  But let's leave the mark at 30.  Now, how many significant repeats (lets say, more than 3) were there at the "expected" 30 HR level?
Pujols: 9
Teixeira: 8
Fielder: 6
Konerko: 6
Delgado: 4
A-Gone: 4
So that's almost half the 30 HR seasons in the last decade being posted by 6 guys. That's what, 3 HOF candidates and 3 more Hall-of-Very-Good kind of hitters? Everybody else is striving just to hit that high-water mark, not float comfortably above it. Morneau did it three times, Berkman twice.  Joey Votto of the bazillion dollar, franchise contract, did it ONCE. Now, first basemen are "disrespected" in prospect rankings these days because they aren't outslugging glove positions nearly as much as they once did.  A first baseman with a .800 OPS doesn't mean much when there are CF and 2B out there doing the same thing.  This is a great little chart from BA illustrating how the little guys are catching up:

But 30 HRs is not a benchmark for being a first-baseman, it's one for being an All-Star (and not the only one, judging by Votto).  The idea that 35 2B /25 HRs isn't the makings of a plus first baseman is a steroid era holdover, not part of baseball going forward.  When you find somebody who can crush 40 bombs at the position rejoice, because few people are gonna have those first basemen over the next several years (Pujols, Tex, and Konerko aren't gonna have many more sips at even the 30 HR level, I'll tell you that).
This idea that a first baseman should be posting a .900 OPS is no longer reasonable. First basemen exceeding .900 OPS:
2010: 5 (A-Gone, Votto, Konerko, Pujols, Cabrera)
2011: 7 (the above 5 plus Morse in 3/4 of a season and Fielder) 
2012: 2 (Votto, Fielder)
2013: 4 (Votto, Goldschmidt, Encarnacion in a weird/suspicious year, Crush Davis in the same)
Again, it'd be great to get it, but unless you have a Goldschmidt lying around (and checking the minors NO ONE DOES) then stop expecting it. First base is morphing to a .800-.850 OPS position where hopefully you get some glovework to help with value. Choi sure looks to be one of the best first base prospects in the minors, and thankfully the Ms at least seem to realize it.


I'm hoping it's not in June, for his sake.  We are rushing that guy quite a bit, and he's not disappointing, but getting to AAA in less than a thousand PAs (and no college ball) is pretty remarkable. Miguel Sano didn't do it, Joc Pederson wasn't CLOSE to doing it, Nick Frankin didn't, MIKE TROUT didn't (though he was close)...
So he's been rushed up the ladder like Mike Trout, MVP candidate but that's not setting off any warning bells among observers.  Like I said, I think that's weird.  If they really think his learning curve can be that steep he might be in Seattle mid-year, but either our temporary DH or underperforming first baseman will have to be struggling, I would think. And we'll have to think Choi is a very serious talent. Seriously, go find me a non-college talent sent to AAA with this few plate-appearances under his belt who wasn't a top-rated guy.
If he's OPSing .950 again though, it may be hard to stop him. I just know Joey Votto got 3000 minor league plate appearances before his jump to the bigs and glory, or 3x as much as Choi has had.    I'd like to let Choi breathe a little and settle into a level for a few months.  Who knows what he could do if he wasn't being hop-scotched all over the place?  Hopefully our big-league team is good enough to allow that to happen.

IcebreakerX's picture

Lack of samples is probably a big deal too, and I'm totally referring to him being Korean.
Korean hitters with success at higher levels ends up being a short list, especially if it's a power prospect. Shin-Soo Choo, Hee-Seop Choi, Seung-Yeop Lee... And I think that's about it, even with NPB in the equation.
I think there might be some bias in there...

Kyle's picture

To me choi is easily top 10 in our system and probably 4-6. He was leading the southern league in OPS (if he had qualified) about 7-10 days before his promotion before slowing down just a bit. And as stated in the article he did that after a horrible start and unlucky babip. He seems slump proof. He'll always walk and get XBHs. He walks as much as he strikes out and I think his power is greatly undersold by most national pundits. To me he has 25 HR power and that is more than enough at 1B. Even if he is a DH only he is a .800-.900 OPS rock in the middle of our lineup. Ill take a DH hitting .300/.400/.500 (or close too it) over a middle infielder like Taylor who will OPS .700


McCutcheon hit 14 homers in 780 career AAA AB's. He's averaged 25 a year for the last 3 seasons in Pittsburgh. Choi will pop 20.

blissedj's picture

we have with Ji-Man. Maybe I'm biased having endured Casey Kotchman and Justin Smoak, but this guy is super exciting! A real live major league hitter at 1B! One that could actually drive in 60+ runs in a season! I know, RBI are worthless, random, etc..... but when 1B can't achieve that level of performance my team is going to struggle. In years past Choi would have been a Top 100 guy. Although Ryan Klesko was a bit younger look at what he was doing in the minors and he ranked 8 and 3 on BA Top 100 lists! Man, looking back at his career Klesko was really good! Anyhow, these days 1B can barely crack the list. Choi is Top 5 in the minors at first base along with Singleton, Vogelbach and Bird on my list. And he's proven it at a higher level than a couple of those guys.
Speaking of Greg Bird, he OPS'd 938 with 107 BB and did not make the Yankees Top 20 at mlb.com. Looks a whole bunch like what Joey Votto was doing at 20 years of age at low A ball.
Can't wait for the Choi or DJ era to begin.


107 walks in A ball at 20 is great - he had 30% more walks than the next closest guy in the league, you know that? His .938 came with a .220 iso as well.  Now, the Sally is an offensive league, but at 20 he's still tearing it up at a really young age.  Joey Gallo is a full year younger, but walked half as much and struck out even more often.  I like Bird's profile more. Gallo is giving me an Ian Stewart vibe.  He's got a lot of time to clean it up, and his power is ridiculous, but nobody's throwing him breaking balls yet and he struck out in 37% (!!!) of his plate appearances.  Bird struck out in 23% - still high, but with his batting eye that's workable. And it's not ridiculous.
I like Bird as a prospect very much - but he's from my neck of the woods so I might be a little biased.  Kinda irks me that he's in the Yankees system. ;) I don't see ANY way he's not top-20 come Spring. Sickels should have something to say about that.
And yeah, Klesko's a good call. Choi has a couple more hurdles to climb still, but his basic skillset seems pretty bullet-proof as a mold for giving you a decent hitter.  Of course, I would have thought a 110 OPS+ would be the basics I could expect from Smoak, too, and that's has NOT been the case (although he's close to there now - we're still being given too much credit for Safeco after the fences were moved in due to lagging park adjustments, IMO).

muddyfrogwater's picture

I really like the skill set at the plate. High OBP with decent contact skills and complimented by relatively low strike out rates. As a 22 yr. old he may have untapped power potential.
The eye ratio is one thing, but more importantly I think the low strike out rates will help him translate his batting average to the MLB. By virtue of putting more balls in play. 80 strike outs per 500 PA's.

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