What the Pirates are getting in Ji-Man Choi

During every offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates seem to be bystanders, carefully waiting for the market to play out before adding players as free agents or via trades. Thus, it was a mild surprise to see them fire the first shot and fill a huge vacancy at first base with Thursday’s acquisition of Ji-Man Choi from the Tampa Bay Rays for a minor league pitcher.

As noted here before, the Pirates used 10 different players at first base in 2022 and got the lowest production in the majors from the position. In Choi, they’re getting a left-handed batter with postseason experience and a guy who profiles like last season’s free agent acquisition, Daniel Vogelbach. Like Vogelbach, he looks more like he belongs on a bowling team than a baseball team. But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is one must look past the batting average to learn Choi’s true value.

The numbers

During his time as a Pirate, Vogelbach slashed .228/.338/.430, 12 HR and 34 RBIs before being traded at the deadline. With the Rays all season long, Choi slashed .233/.341/.388, 11 HR and 52 RBIs. Like the case with Vogelbach, Choi’s high walk rate was surely attractive to the analytically hip Pirates brain trust. Choi’s best season was in 2019, when his stat line read .261/.363/.459, 19 HR and 63 RBIs. I would think the Pirates would be happy with something similar to what they got from Vogelbach last season, with the hope Choi might duplicate the 2019 version of himself.

Can he do it? Ben Cherington is the fourth Pirates general manager in the history of PNC Park. He’s also the first to realize the team should be built around left-handed batters to take advantage of the short right field there. Choi joins a lineup with fellow lefties Oneil Cruz and Jack Suwinksi and switch-hitter Bryan Reynolds. However, a move to PNC Park may not necessarily mean increased power production. Tropicana Field has similar dimensions to PNC Park for a left-handed batter. So it’s not as if we can extrapolate that many fly balls Choi hit to the warning track in Tropicana Field would be home runs in PNC Park.

Reason to believe

Fortunately for the Pirates, there are other reasons to believe Choi may improve on his 2022 numbers. For his career, Choi hits to the opposite field only 17.3 percent of the time. Don’t forget the rule taking effect in 2023 that forbids three infielders on one side of second base. Choi will no longer face the familiar shift alignment that had become commonplace against left-handed pull hitters.

On Friday, it was announced Choi will be undergoing minor elbow surgery. He is expected to be ready for spring training. The elbow bothered him last season and resulted in a short stay on the Injured List. Choi getting surgery now tells us he wasn’t completely healthy. On the negative side, Choi has a 25.6 percent career strikeout rate. Still, a healthy Choi who doesn’t have to face extreme infield shifts should improve on his 2022 performance.

The Fielding Bible rates Choi at minus two Total Runs Saved, putting him toward the bottom of the major leagues. He also produced a fielding average of .996 in both 2021 and 2022 and .994 for his career. Advanced metrics have discounted fielding average as a reliable measure of defensive worth in recent years. At the same time, one catching over 99 percent of balls hit to him isn’t too bad.

Financial considerations

Choi becomes arbitration eligible in 2023, which is why the Rays decided to move on from him. He also becomes a free agent in 2024, unless the Pirates sign him to a multiyear deal. That depends on future first baseman Mason Martin‘s progress. MLB Trade Rumors projects Choi’s 2023 salary at $4.5 million. That’s the kind of payday a team gives to a regular, especially on the Pirates. So does this make him the everyday first baseman? Not so fast. Choi has been a platoon player, with only 278 plate appearances against left-handed pitching over his seven-year career. For his career, he’s hitting just .203/.288/.301 against them. It’s clear he needs a right-handed platoon partner.

Possibilities are Yuli Gurriel, Jesus Aguilar, Miguel Sano and Wil Myers, all available on the free agent market. But that would mean the cost-conscious Pirates would be spending a lot of money on one position. It’s more likely the Pirates will look internally for a right-handed first baseman to complement Choi. The Pirates seem to be high on late-season waiver pickup Miguel Andujar, the former New York Yankees prospect who hit .297/.328/.527, 27 HR and 92 RBIs in 2018. They need to find a position for him. Andujar has played three games at first base in his major-league career. Another possibility is Malcolm Nunez, the corner infielder acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Jose Quintana trade, who hit 23 homers for three minor league teams in 2022.

Who’s next?

Analyzing trades in the offseason is interesting, but keep in mind we still have over three months until spring training. We have to wait for the other shoe to drop and see who else the Pirates add in the offseason. That will tell us more about where Choi should appear in the batting order. Besides another first baseman, they will be looking for a catcher and a designated hitter. When the talking heads on ESPN and the MLB Network do their preseason analysis of trades, of Choi they’ll say the usual: “Great deal for Pittsburgh. They can flip him for prospects in July.”

But last July, Cherington said he didn’t necessarily have to make a lot of deals — and he didn’t — and proclaimed it time to concentrate on the major league team. After getting Choi, he spoke of wanting to do more to help the offense. Cherington can be hard to read. He speaks in the same tone as an actuary analyzing cash flows. I could be reading him wrongly, but it sure feels different this time.

Why now?

So why did the Pirates act so untypically quickly in snatching up Choi? I have my own theory. Prior to joining the Pirates, Cherington and manager Derek Shelton spent their entire major league careers in the American League. Much of that time was spent in the East Division. There wasn’t much overlap with Choi’s time in Tampa Bay, but as the saying goes, they probably know people who know people who know Choi well and heard good things about his character. In discussing the deal, Cherington mentioned Choi was a good teammate. I think the Pirates got the man they wanted. We’ll see how well he pans out.

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