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International Free Agent Profile: Jeong Choi

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Jeong Choi, one of Korea's biggest baseball stars, is interested in playing baseball in the U.S. Would the Mets be a better team in 2015 if they signed the Korean infielder?

Chung Sung-Jun

Born on February 28, 1987, in Icheon, South Korea, Jeong Choi would grow up to become the "Korean David Wright." With MVP numbers and MVP looks, Choi has been the cornerstone of the SK Wyverns for years. Since Choi established himself in 2007, the Wyverns have compiled a 524-366 record and have made it to the Korean Series six times, winning three championships.

Choi attended Yushin High School and excelled in athletics. Over the course of his high school career, he showed a great deal of versatility, playing all nine positions on the baseball diamond. In 2004, his last year of high school, he was selected to be on South Korea's national team in the 18-U Baseball World Cup. The South Korean team ended the tournament in third place, behind second-place Japan and the winners of the competition, Cuba. Shortly after being named the best high school hitter, Choi was inked by the SK Wyverns for a 300 million won signing bonus (roughly $290,000). With direction from his club, Choi gave up pitching and decided to focus exclusively on hitting and fielding.

The right-hander made his debut in 2005 as an 18-year-old. Assigned number 14, Choi appeared in 45 games, getting 93 plate appearances. He did not exactly impress, hitting .247/.304/.341. The Wyverns penciled him into 92 games in 2006, and the youngster once again seemed to be pressing. He hit an uninspiring .221/.275/.389 in 304 plate appearances, striking out an alarming 90 times. Following the 2006 season, Sung-Keun Kim replaced Beom-Hyeon Cho as SK Wyvern manager, and Choi responded, hitting a solid .267/.338/.436 in 122 games. Now with a third baseman who was producing his weight, the Wyverns made it to the Korea Series, the KBO's World Series analogue. After losing the first two games of the series to the Doosan Bears, the Wyverns came roaring back, winning the next four games to win the KBO championship.

In 2008, the 21-year-old broke out of his offensive shell, hitting a robust .328/.410/.480. Everything came together for the Wyverns as they found themselves in the Korea Series facing the Doosan Bears once again. The Wyverns lost the first game of the series, but went undefeated the rest of the way, winning their second consecutive Korea Series. Jeong Choi was named Korea Series MVP, hitting the game-winning homer in game three, adding two doubles and driving in the winning run in game four, and driving in one of the Wyverns' two total runs in game five.

Choi started out the 2009 season playing on Team Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He appeared in six games, primarily as the team's backup shortstop. He only got six at-bats and registered no hits, though he did drive a runner in. Choi's less-than-impressive performance in the international tournament had no major impact on his performance at home once the Wyverns season began, as he hit .265/.376/.478. His 19 home runs that season established a then-career high, and his 40 walks in 99 games totaled one less than his career high, 41, which came in 114 games. The Wyverns once again made it to the Korea Series—this time facing off against the KIA Tigers—but were unable to make it a three-peat, losing in game seven of the exciting series.

In 2010, the third baseman hit .300/.396/.533 and the Wyverns made it to the Korea Series for the fourth season in a row. For the third time in recent memory, they took home the gold, sweeping the Samsung Lions. In 2011 and 2012, Choi led his team to the Korea Series two more times, making it six consecutive trips. Unfortunately for them, they lost to the Lions in both series. In 2011 and 2012, Choi was awarded the Golden Glove for third basemen, an award for the best player at each position (an important distinction from MLB Gold Gloves, which are awarded to the best defensive player at each position).

In 2013, Choi once again began the season playing for Team Korea in the World Baseball Classic. Owing more to Korea's brief run in the competition than to his own standing on the team, Choi appeared in two games in the tournament. He logged two hits in six at-bats, driving one runner in. Both hits occurred during the March 2 game against the Netherlands, when Choi went 2-for-3. He would go on to have the best season of his career for the Wyverns, hitting .316/.429/.551 over 120 games. His 28 home runs, 64 walks, 24 hit-by-pitches, and 24 stolen bases were all career highs. The third baseman barely missed setting a career high in hits as well, falling just six short of the mark he set the year before, 142, which came in 10 more games.

In 2014, the Wyverns re-signed Choi for 700 million won (roughly $675,500), up from 520 million (roughly $501,800) in 2013. The third baseman got off to a good start but, in the middle of May, was sent down to the Wyverns' Futures League (minor league) team to rehab an undisclosed ailment. He returned roughly a month later to no apparent ill effects, hitting .500 with 2 home runs in his first six games. He continued hitting, and seems well on his way to posting his fifth consecutive season hitting over .300, getting on base at a .390 clip or better, and slugging over .500.

After similar rumors in years past, Choi, now a free agent, is interested in coming to MLB. According to his agent, Melvin Roman, "He has a strong desire to come and play in the major leagues."

Year Age G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2010 23 123 493 .300 .396 .533 20 49 72 12/16
2011 24 113 488 .310 .402 .526 20 46 72 15/20
2012 25 130 553 .300 .385 .538 26 49 98 20/28
2013 26 120 525 .316 .429 .551 28 64 109 24/32
2014* 27 77 296 .304 .399 .503 13 35 67 7/9
*Stats current as of September 13, 2014 (2014 Asian Games KBO break)

Choi is a very balanced player, perhaps even a five-tool player—though it remains to be seen whether all of those tools will translate to MLB success. He hits for average, hits for power, has above-average base running skills, plays above-average defense, and has a strong arm.

He uses the entire field, but is primarily a pull hitter, and has become more of a pull hitter in the last couple of years as his power numbers have gone up. When specifically trying to pull balls, his swing gets long and uppercutty, reflected in his high fly ball rate. He is considered to have good bat speed and strong wrists, meaning he is able to catch up to fastballs and modify his bat path to adjust to breaking balls; but the question remains whether or not he has enough of either to catch up to the premium velocity commonly found in MLB.

According to Clint Hulsey in his scouting breakdown of the infielder, Choi was the second-best defensive third baseman in the KBO in 2012, reflecting a trend of good defense that goes back a few years. His fielding mechanics and throwing mechanics don't seem to bear it out according to the eye test, as his footwork looks sloppy, his body is in non-ideal positions when fielding, and his arm is in a non-ideal slot when throwing; but the third baseman gets results. Choi has a strong arm and was clocked as high as 91 MPH in the Speed King exhibition earlier this season, a contest in which position players compete to see who throws the hardest.

It is important to take into account the inflated run environment that exists in Korea and how that might skew the relative value of Choi's numbers. The KBO is experiencing an offensive explosion this season, due mostly to a new regulation ball, combined with additional roster spots for foreign players and the addition of a new team, the NC Dinos. Offense in the league has never been better: Study author and former MLB and KBO pitcher Ryan Sadowski calculated that roughly 40% more runs have been scored in 2014 compared to 2012, and roughly 80% more home runs have been hit. In addition, one has to factor in the third baseman's home park, Munhak Stadium. The home of the SK Wyverns is very small for MLB standards: only 312 feet down the lines, 377 feet to left- and right-center, and 394 feet to dead-center. By comparison, Citizens Bank is 330 feet down the lines and 409 feet at its deepest part; Yankee Stadium is 318 feet in left and 408 feet at its deepest part. Many, though not all, of his home runs would be fly balls in larger MLB stadiums.

Does he make sense for the Mets?

As has been the trend, the free agent market for third basemen looks thin. Pablo Sandoval, Aramis Ramirez, and Chase Headley headline the 2015 third base free agent class, and all three have their own issues that will influence the bidding process: Sandoval is looking for a large contract, Ramirez will be 37 next season, and Headley's offensive numbers have taken a downturn. With multiple teams in the hunt to replace or upgrade their respective third base situations, Choi could be an intriguing option.

When you don't have your own David Wright, "the Korean David Wright" might just be the next best thing. But when you do have your own David Wright, then what? Barring some kind of career-ending catastrophe, David Wright is set to man the hot corner for the Mets for years to come.

In the opinion of Wyverns hitting coach Max Venable, Choi should be an outfielder if he leaves the KBO to play for an MLB team. Periodically over the years, Choi has gotten into in-game action with the Wyverns at positions other than third base and, as mentioned earlier, played all over the diamond in high school. Brushing up and getting reacquainted at a new position would add to the pressures of making the transition to a new league—just ask Wilmer Flores. Given the added pressures of having to adapt to a new culture, I do think it would be best for whatever club that signs him to keep the pressure on Choi as minimal as possible.

Another factor that might play into signing Choi is the media and fan attention that he may garner. It is no secret that Queens has a large population of people of Asian descent. While the majority are of Chinese descent, according to statistical data, Queens is home to a large Korean population as well. In April 2007, I attended a game in which Chan Ho Park started in place of an injured El Duque, and based on the energy in stands, an otherwise mundane game had transformed into Korean Heritage Night. This is not to say that Choi would necessarily sell out Citi Field with New York City's Korean population, but a star like Jeong Choi would certainly infuse the nearby Korean community with positive energy vis-à-vis the Mets.

Choi is talented enough to garner a guaranteed MLB contract, but I don't imagine that it would be particularly long or expensive. The relatively weak domestic market for third basemen could certainly drive the cost up, both in dollars and years; but as a 27-year-old untested third baseman whose overall numbers are expected to drop against MLB competition, I can't imagine him having too much market leverage. If he comes to the U.S., he will likely be signed to a very non-prohibitive contract—a few million dollars for a relative short term. Depending on what kind of role a team uses him in and how well he adapts his baseball skills to MLB, that could turn out to be a bargain.