Stop me if you've heard this one before. One of the Ms best international hitters has his career slowed by a series of injuries, putting in doubt his ability to fulfill all that promise.
Before it was a blond Aussie with talent for days, but who happened to be made of glass. He tantalized and wowed, but was never able to make the impact we envisioned for him.
Alas, poor Snelling. We knew him well. He ended his injury riddled career leaving a string of broken dreams in his wake, with the following line: .301/.395/.454
You know what Choi's line is thus far? .304/ .407/ .492
And it's not like Ji-Man is some late-20s ex-prospect just hanging on. Choi is 6 months older than DJ Peterson, and a year and a half younger than Patrick Kivlehan. And despite Choi having been in the system forever and us always talking about how raw Kivlehan is... Patrick has more minor-league at-bats under his belt than Choi does.
That's what injuries will do to you. Here's a timeline:
Summer 2009 - signed as an international free agent (age 18, which is a bit old for an IFA) as a 3B. Went to Arizona to train and acclimate to the States, switched to catcher/1B.
Summer 2010 - played in rookie ball as a teen, OPSed 1.000, got promoted up 3 levels to play 3 weeks in the Cal League - and held his own (.822 OPS in 50 PAs).
Spring 2011 - fractured vertebrae in his back,had a metal rod inserted, missed the entire season.
Spring 2012 - Rod removed, transitioned to 1B/DH instead of catcher in extended AZ practice time.
Summer 2012 - played 1B/DH in full-season A-ball for 3 months, OPSed .880 in a pitcher's league with a really good batting eye.
Winter 2012 - destroyed winter ball in Australia
Spring 2013 - 200 plate appearances in the Cal League, OPSed 1.000+, missed some time with a couple minor injuries, got promoted
Summer 2013 - another 230 plate appearances in AA, OPSed .860 with more walks than Ks, promoted again to AAA and help his own for 3 weeks, with less than 1000 minor league at-bats and no college experience
Spring 2014 - Had a great 2 weeks in AAA, then got suspended for PEDs.
Summer 2014 - returned to the club, hit near career norms for average and OBP, power fell off severely.
Spring 2015 - broke fibula, requiring surgery - out 4-6 months
I don't really hold the PED suspension against Choi, considering that upwards of 30% of supplements in Korea may be tainted with steroids. He's one of those rare cases where he may actually be telling the truth about not knowing what happened - but that really doesn't help him, or us, at this point.
Ji-Man's right around the 1500 PAs that would normally inform your decisions about how good a player might be. He is basically 1:1 with his batting eye, with an IsoW of over 100 points and a 36% extra base hit rate (brought down a bit due to his lack of power last year).
Coming back strong at the end of this year would help him enormously. We do have some other hitting prospects coming up, but the 1B/ DH role doesn't have as many contenders after Peterson. With Cruz manning DH for us for the next 4 years, though, Choi really needed to keep pace with DJ. As it is, he's in danger of falling out of the race, and leaving us entirely.
I would hate for someone else to wind up with our next Korean sensation. The only thing separating Choi from a long and fairly nice major-league career, IMO, is health. I think he's a better hitter at this stage than countryman Shin-soo Choo was, but that he is on a similar production trajectory.
Choo's career line is as a .280/.380/.450 hitter with a 130 OPS+. You can't really invoke the name Rafael Palmeiro as upside because of the roids, but Choi strikes me as similar. Mike Sweeney is another name.
But step one is staying healthy. Who knows what Snelling could have been if he'd been able to stay on the field. Luckily Choi seems fully healthy and recovered from his back surgery, and he's not messing up his upper body which Snelling was also doing. But since he's about to lose his spot with the Mariners, Choi has to set about impressing in order to keep his career. Especially since he'll have to start his 2 years of compulsive military service by age 30 - if he can't crack the bigs soon and stay, he may have trouble convincing a team to bet on him long-term.
I certainly hope he can. I'd hate to see another "if only" story play out. But Choi can't afford many more of these pause buttons on his career trajectory - when he gets back, I just want to see him stay healthy and perform.
To be more Rendon than Snelling, and put all the injuries and missed time behind him, once and for all when his big league career kicks into high gear. Fingers crossed.