Will Jeong Choi Be MLB's Next International Hitting Star?

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterMay 7, 2014

SAN DIEGO - MARCH 19: Shortstop Jeong Choi #2 of Korea grabs a ground ball hit by Japan during the 2009 World Baseball Classic Round 2 Pool 1 Game 6 on March 19, 2009 at Petco Park in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

South Korean third baseman Jeong Choi won’t become an international free agent until after the season, but there’s already speculation he might pursue a jump to the major leagues in 2015.

According to Choi’s agent, Melvin Roman (via Jon Heyman of CBS Sports), the 27-year-old “has a strong desire to come and play in the major leagues.”

However, Yoo Jee-ho of the Yonhap News Agency reported several days later that Choi, through his team, SK Wyverns, claimed the rumor was not true and had had not hired an agent:

Choi turned down all interview requests on Tuesday, saying he didn't have any comment on the U.S. report. Through the team, Choi said claims of his hiring an agent or preparing to jump to the big leagues next year 'are not true.'

Roman runs MDR Sports Management out of Puerto Rico. The company's website lists Choi as an international client. The agency's MLB clientele includes Yadier Molina, an All-Star catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Leonys Martin, an outfielder for the Texas Rangers.

Calls to MDR Sports Management, seeking comments on the situation, were not immediately returned.

Regardless of Choi’s current level of interest in a stateside career, the reality is that he’ll be able to sign with any MLB team in time for the 2015 season, and there should be several interested in his services.

Choi made his Korea Baseball Organization debut with the SK Wyverns in 2005 as an 18-year-old but didn’t become an everyday player until the 2007 season. The following year was Choi’s breakout campaign, as he posted a career-high .328 batting average with 36 extra-base hits and 19 steals. He then emerged as a star in the playoffs, taking home MVP honors after guiding SK Wyverns to a Korean Series title.  

Jeong Choi's Career Statistics

Based on the raw data, Choi has shown the type of all-around development one looks for in a player entering his prime seasons. His power has steadily improved with age and experience, as he’s posted an isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) well over .200 in each of the past five seasons. Choi also is riding a streak of four consecutive seasons with at least 20 home runs, including a career-high 28 in 2013. Lastly, Choi has batted .304 in 2,456 at-bats since the start of what would be his breakout 2008 campaign (not including the 2014 season), while maintaining relatively steady strikeout and walk rates and consistently reaching base at a high clip. He also gets hit by a lot of pitches—107 in the past five seasons, to be exact.

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K C Alfred/Associated Press

Ironically, it’s Choi’s healthy track record that will make him such an interesting international free agent next season; it’s allowed his natural ability and baseball skills to develop thoroughly, which explains both his year-to-year consistency and improvement over the last half-decade. Meanwhile, the fact that he’s coming off back-to-back 20-20 performances speaks to his durability.

The general scouting report on Choi is that he’s an advanced, well-rounded player who flashes all five tools, at least by Korean baseball standards. Choi’s carrying tool is his bat, and any team that signs him will have to believe he’ll immediately hit for average against big league arms. He has quick wrists and bat speed necessary to handle advanced pitching, and he’s already adept at using the entire field.

Beyond that, Choi’s blend of power and speed at a corner position is intriguing, not to mention the reason why he’s frequently compared to David Wright. An uppercut bat path through the hitting zone fuels his power, as it helps him generate backspin carry and a high percentage of fly balls.

Defensively, Choi features an average glove at the hot corner, though he’s said to struggle with arm-slot and body-control issues at times, which isn’t uncommon for a player his age. At 5’11”, and roughly 185 pounds, Choi should retain enough speed and athleticism to stick at third base long term. His strong arm, which helped draw attention as a pitcher in high school, is his greatest asset and a clean fit at the position. And take it for what it’s worth, but Choi won a Gold Glove in 2011.

Yet, despite Choi’s impressive tenure in the KBO, there are some who question whether or not his game will translate in the major leagues.

Clint Hulsey of I R Fast argued in early 2013 that Choi doesn’t profile as an everyday third baseman in the major leagues:

I don't see a MLB starter in Choi, and backup infielders don't have great value if they can't play shortstop. This is why he wouldn't have as much value as say Kensuke Tanaka, the former Fighter shortstop that is now with the Giants. I think Choi likely has more power, but Tanaka has the positional value, and he had to take a minor league contract. Obviously we will see how he plays in 2013, but it is hard to see him getting a guaranteed contract in the Majors. He may actually fit on a NPB roster better.

That was before Choi’s monster 2013 season, before he set new career highs in home runs (28), stolen bases (24) and OPS (.980). Plus, the fact that he’s even rumored to be interested in pursuing a career in Major League Baseball next season has undoubtedly caught the attention of those teams potentially in the market for a third baseman.

Next year’s crop of free-agent third basemen is led by Aramis Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley, with Sandoval and Headley expected to seek lucrative, multi-year contracts. Depending on how the situations with those players unfold, both the Giants and Padres could compete for Choi’s services in 2015. Heyman also believes the Diamondbacks, White Sox and Red Sox could also emerge as suitors by the offseason.

Regardless of which team ultimately signs Choi, they’ll be taking a calculated gamble that his success in the KBO will translate in the major leagues.

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