The Sad, Strange Case of Ji-Man Choi

Baseball’s a funny game. You can love your team. Then, if you love them enough, you’ll love their top prospects. If you love the top prospects enough, you’ll start to learn about the top performers on each farm team. It goes on and on until you start reciting the Clinton Lumberkings lineup numbers to your friends at a dinner party. Some people say it’s a waste of time and that’s fine.

In 2009, the Mariners sent some scouts to South Korea to take a look at a group of pitchers, namely Seon Gi Kim.  The Mariners ended up signing that pitcher and brought him stateside.  Catching Kim that day was a converted third basemen who not many knew about.  The Mariners liked what they saw in the short tryout and decided to sign him, as well.  This happens fairly often.  Teams take flyers on guys and this third basemen-turned-catcher happened to be one.

Once stateside in 2010, these 2 players joined the Arizona rookie league.  Kim had good stuff but sported a ballooned ERA.  The other South Korean didn’t have any trouble though.  He hit .360 with a .440 OBP and .517 slugging percentage.  He was eventually promoted to the high-A team, High Desert, and posted an .822 OPS all as a 19-year-old.  Mariners prospect nerds became enticed with this player who was unknown a year before.  The legend of Ji-Man Choi was born.

While Choi was hitting everything in sight, the Mariners were slowly breaking him into the catcher position.  He played most of his time and first base and DH but every third or fourth day he’d be behind the plate.  Needless to say, a left-handed hitting catcher who drew a ton of walks was pretty exciting.

2011’s spring training rolled around and there was Choi, working out with the catchers.  Then, all of a sudden, he was just gone.  Following minor-league baseball is hard to do in this day and age because we, as fans, are so used to getting all the information we want right away.  When a low-minors baseball player disappears from box scores there’s only so much a common fan can try to figure out.  This was the case with Choi.  Eventually it came out that Ji-Man had back pain.  The pain was so extensive that he didn’t play a game in 2011.  They eventually found a broken bone and then inserted a rod and two screws into Choi’s back.

The first few months of 2012 came and went and there was no sign of him in the box scores.  He had the rod and screws removed and later showed up in Clinton in late May.

Missing your 20 year-old season as a baseball player is a big deal.  That’s one of the formative years for prospects.  Choi hadn’t played in a baseball game in almost a year and a half.  He was inserted into the Clinton lineup and on his first day back he went 2-4 with a double.

Ji-Man looked as if he hadn’t missed any time at all.  He split that time in 2012 rotating between first base and DH and ended.  He wasn’t great but he was good and, as a 20 year-old, he put up an .895 OPS.

As prospect lists became to come out over that off-season, Choi was left off.  There were two reasons for this:  One, he had just been injured for a year and a half.  Two, he didn’t have enough power to be a major league first baseman. Ji_Man_Choi_1280_kju6a1er_qc4gs806

2013 came and Ji-Man started the year at High Desert.  A hitters paradise.  In his 48 games there Choi posted a .337/.427/.619 slash line.  He had more extra base hits than singles and walked 27 times while only striking out 33 times.  Naturally, he was promoted to Jackson, the Mariners AA team.  The average dropped off some there but not much else did.  He sported .862 OPS in his stop in Jackson, a much tougher league to hit in, at the ripe age of 22.  My favorite stat from there?  His 32 walks and 28 strikeouts.  At the end of his great season, he got the call up to Tacoma for a handful of games.  It was the cherry on top of a great season.

Choi started appearing on more prospect lists over this off-season.  One complaint remained.  Yep, you guessed it.  He can’t hit for enough power.  Still, the Ji-Man train trudged on.

He started 2014 in Tacoma.  Guess what he did there?  Hit.  He hit a lot.  In 10 games he posted a .395/.500/.545.  Granted, it was 10 games but anyone who had followed his career wasn’t surprised.  The guy had already overcome so much, being only 22, that it wasn’t a surprise that he was, well, a surprise.

Maybe the Mariners finally had a guy to push Justin Smoak.  A guy who maybe didn’t have the power potential but actually had some consistency.  A guy who could possibly do what John Olerud did on the last successful Mariners team, get on base, hit doubles and play great defense.

Word broke this afternoon that Ji-Man Choi had been suspended 50 games for the use of a performance enhancing drug.  The drug was methandienone, a type of anabolic steroid.

It just made so much sense.  A guy who was constantly knocked for his lack of home run power at a power position was taking an illegal substance to make him stronger.  He’s only like 195 pounds, for crying out loud.  Then, this came out, via Choi:

“A banned substance was detected in my urine sample,” Choi said. “I do not know what I could have taken that caused me to test positive. I have not and never would knowingly use anything illegal to enhance my performance. However, I also understand that without an explanation I must serve a suspension and I accept that. I look forward to putting this behind me and to returning to help the Mariners ballclub once my suspension has ended.”

Maybe it didn’t make sense at all?  Why would a guy who has never been the ‘star prospect’ but overcome that with pure skill and a disciplined approach break from that?  Choi is a smart baseball who makes up for his lack of home runs by taking his walks and hitting the ball into the gap.  Why would a smart guy do this when he was so close?

The only person who knows if Choi took this steroid is Choi himself.  He said he didn’t and many people probably don’t believe him.  He’s probably used to people doubting him anyway.  Hopefully, he doesn’t care.

Baseball’s interesting.  You know 25 guys and then you read about the next 25 guys people think you might see in a few years.  It goes on and on until someone tells you to shut up at a dinner party.  For some reason, I love Ji-Man Choi’s story and today it took another turn.  My favorite prospect, a guy I’ve never seen play a game, is out for a while because he possibly did something bad and I’m upset.  I’ll look forward to early June when Choi will show back up in the Tacoma box scores and Mike Curto will send out tweets about his 2-4 nights, with a double and a walk.  In the mean time I’ll just keep envisioning Choi as the next John Olerud.  That’s ending of his story that I like the best.

I wonder how Jabari Blash is doing.

– Andrew

 

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Filed under Mariners, Working On the Farm

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