In 10 words or fewer: Angels Rule 5 pick, their most interesting in recent history.
Position: 1B/LF | Age (2016): 25
Bats: S | Throws: R
Height: 6’1″ | Weight: 230
2015 Rank: N/A
Contact – B. When he’s locked in, Choi is a very difficult hitter to fool and equally as difficult to strike out. Now I hope I don’t get fried for this simply because of the ethnicity connection, but Ji-Man’s stance and swing strike an uncanny resemblance to that of fellow countryman Shin-Soo Choo. The pre-swing motion and bat angle are identical, the post-swing motion is identical as well (keeping both hands on the bat), the swing is quite similar. The greatest difference I see is that Choi will bend his knees slightly more and deploys a more even swing, whereas Choo is slightly more upright and has an uppercut.
Power – B. Here’s a confusing one for you. What do you classify as power? Because if it comes down to raw strength, Choi would grade out as a high “B”. If it’s extra base ability in general, he’d be a borderline “A”. If its homerun power, it’s more of the “C” variety, unless it’s compared solely to corner infielders in which case it’s a “D”. The truth is, Choi has enough power to hit 20-30 HR’s a year, but his swing is far too geared to line drives, there’s no loft. So the HR’s he does hit or more of the high line drives type. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him hit a HR that’s more of the high variety than far. I haven’t seen him as much as most other Angel prospects on the cusp of the majors, but I’ve watched him enough times to have a pretty decent handle on who he is. In the end, I think Choi will end up hitting 10-15 HR’s a year, but 30-40 doubles.
Discipline – A+. I don’t give out A+ grades very frequently. Only when it’s a skill that will not only translate to the next level, but he’ll be among the major league leaders at the next level at this skill. For example, Kaleb Cowart’s arm, is an A+. Mike Trout’s footspeed is an A+. Ji-Man Choi’s plate discipline is an A+. He holds a career minor league OBP over .400. This skill hasn’t decreased as he’s climbed the minor league ladder either. Now obviously I can’t sit here and tell you that Choi will post an OBP over .400 in the major leagues, but I can say that if he gets regular at bats, assuming his batting average ends up around .280 like I think it will, I don’t see his OBP dropping any lower than .350. More likely it’ll be up toward .370 or .380.
Speed – C-. Choi can run the bases just fine for a first baseman. But in the overall sense of footspeed, Choi probably grades out as slightly below average, though not to the point where it’s a hindrance.
Arm – B. Not many know this, but Choi was one of the premier international talents back in 2009/2010. No one really reported this much because of the fact that the baseball world is so predominantly focused on teenage ball players born in Latin America. So Choi existed in a niche among many baseball experts without any fanfare at all. There were only a handful of teams that would even scout teenage players in Asia, and thus Choi wasn’t on the radar much at all. Yet it took a monster of a slot bonus ($435k) to bring in Choi, and as soon as he arrived in Rookie Ball, he dominated. Now pretend he was Latin American instead, and tell me, would he have been one of MLB’s coveted Top 100 prospects? Top 50? Top 30 perhaps? So what’s this have to do with his arm? It was considered his second strongest skill upon signing, back when he was a catcher. This graded out off the charts in some reports. He moved to first base because of obvious communication issues, only speaking Korean, while many of his teammates spoke Spanish. He had a short look in LF and had more than enough arm to hold his own out there, but do to a broken leg suffered in Spring Training, he’s been relegated to first base, where his arm is a bit wasted.
Fielding – B+. By most reports, Choi is a VERY good fielder at first base. He isn’t quite elite, like a gold glover, but he’d certainly make a great late inning defensive replacement if that were his role.
Range – B. As a first baseman, I’m told his range is “proficient.” In layman terms, let’s just call this “good.”
Performance – I. Because he was coming off a pretty gruesome injury, we only had the chance to see Choi play in 18 games in the Mariners AAA affiliate. But in those 18 games, Choi immediately grew into their best hitter, bating .298 with a .403 OBP. These are both hovering around his minor league average and do not appear to be a fluke at all. Another interesting development I’ll be closely following is Choi’s taking on the duties of switch hitting. It’s rare to see a player in his mid-20’s suddenly take up batting from the other side of the plate, but Choi felt comfortable enough on the right side and his coaches didn’t seem to have a problem with it either as he more than held his own. It’ll be interesting to see if the Angels just have him focus on hitting left handed or if they like the versatility he offers at the plate. Overqll, it’s difficult to classify 2015 as anything but a success for Choi. He didn’t make the major leagues like it looked like he would, but that was only due to an absolutely horrific injury. He showed he was fully healthy though, and ended up getting with a 40-man spot with the Angels after his Rule 5 selection.
Projection – B. Choi projects into a very high quality major leaguer. He shouldn’t struggle to hit for average, as his floor should be .250 and ceiling .300. He shouldn’t have any problem hitting both righties and lefties, he has the pop to be a top or middle of the order bat, even though his role will likely be relegated to the bottom of the lineup. He’s good enough on defense to get into the game as a substitute and the same can be said for his bat. In a full-time role, I envision Choi hitting .280/.360 with 30-40 DB’s and 10-15 HR’s. If you’re looking for a major league comp, I’d say Nick Markakis is a solid bet. But for the Angels, I view Choi’s role to begin in more meager place, at least at the beginning of the season.
What to expect in 2016 – Choi will come into camp and I fully anticipate him winning a spot on the 25-man roster to begin the season. If Albert Pujols isn’t ready to start the season, Choi will be the starting first baseman and get himself a fair look. If Pujols is ready to roll, Choi will shift into a bench role, where he’ll be the Angels predominant pinch-hitter due to his ability to make contact with authority and reach base. He’ll also be Cron’s defense replacement in the late innings, so he should get a fair amount of playing time. There’s even the possibility that the Angels don’t mind slotting him in LF, where he could grow into the Angels everyday LF with time. That’d be ideal, as his bat would solve a ton of problems that have recently plagued the Angels. Late in the season, I envision Choi’s role growing considerably, to the point where he’s pretty much a starter regardless, because they have to keep his bat in the lineup somehow.
Most Likely Scenario – Choi makes the Angels as a reserve player, and grows into a useful pinch-hitter and DH, carving a role as an underrated but still considerable hitter.
Grade as a Prospect – B-. He’s too close to the majors and did too much damage in the minors not to be considered an above average prospect.
Estimated Time of Arrival – Right now.