INCHEON, Dec. 23 (Korea Bizwire) – Choi Ji-man, a career minor leaguer expected to reach the majors next year, said Wednesday he’s hoping to make an impact on the big stage once he gets his opportunity.
The 24-year-old, who was recently selected by the Los Angeles Angels at the annual Rule 5 Draft, met with the South Korean press in his hometown of Incheon, a metropolitan city lying west of Seoul.
“I am more confident with my ability to hit for average than hit for power,” he said. “My goal is to stay healthy and give the club a chance to win. I got emotional when I first learned I was going to the Angels. Memories from my rookie season and days when I was rehabbing from injuries came flooding back to me. I was proud of myself for having endured through so much.”
Choi, who’d spent the previous five seasons in the Seattle Mariners system, first signed a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles on Nov. 24, with an invitation to spring training. Then on Dec. 10, the Angels made the first baseman the 16th and final pick at the Rule 5 Draft.
Players who were 19 or older when they first signed with an MLB club and have been in professional baseball for four years, or those who were 18 or younger at the time of their signing and have played for five years, are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft.
The Angels must keep Choi on their 25-man roster for the entire 2016 season, and he must remain active — without a stint on the disabled list — for a minimum of 90 days.
With incumbent first baseman Albert Pujols expected to miss time at the start of the season following toe surgery, C.J. Cron could get the bulk of time at first. Then Choi, a switch hitter who throws right, and Efren Navarro, a left-handed hitting first baseman and corner outfielder, could be battling for a spot as the Angels’ next option at first.
“I am lucky to finally have the opportunity to make my big league debut, and it still hasn’t hit me yet,” Choi said. “I think it won’t hit me until I join spring training with the rest of the players wearing the uniform.”
If he dresses for the Angels, Choi would become the first South Korean to reach the majors via Rule 5 Draft.
“Before the Angels selected me, I had a dream where I was at a press conference with Baltimore and journalists were telling me not to put on the Orioles uniform,” Choi said. “It was all very odd. And then one night, my agent told me I was going to the Angels. I am glad to be going to Los Angeles area with a big Korean community.”
In five minor league seasons, Choi has posted a .302/.404/.481 slash line with 35 home runs, 211 RBIs and 14 steals in 335 games. After his selection, the Angels’ general manager Billy Eppler spoke of Choi: “Very young, very good plate discipline. We have indicators he strikes the ball really hard, strong defender. When you take someone who’s 24 years old, there’s upside there.”
Choi appeared in just 97 games over the past two seasons. Last year, he served a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance. In March this year, he broke his right fibula during spring training and didn’t come back until mid-August.
There will be a handful of South Koreans in the majors next year, but Texas Rangers’ outfielder Choo Shin-soo is the only one who’s moved up through the minor league system, while others made the jump to the majors from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), the top South Korean league.
Choi said he’s proud of having come this far and said Choo, who toiled in the minors for parts of 10 seasons, offered him plenty of encouragement.
“If young players want to come over from Korea, they should never think about giving up and returning home (before reaching the majors),” Choi said. “Shin-soo told me I should try to let my action do the talking because that’s what professionals do, and that helped me a lot.”