Hee-seop Choi spent a quiet off-season at home in Kwang-Ju, South Korea, watching SportsCenter and old episodes of Friends, reading American novels and poring over English-language phrase books. "I'm working to improve my English," says the Dodgers' 26-year-old first baseman, who came to the U.S. in 1999 as a highly regarded prospect and became the first Korean-born position player in the majors. "I think my English is getting better, but only very slowly."
Los Angeles hopes Choi's development as a player progresses more quickly. Acquired from the Marlins as part of a six-player deal last July, Choi flopped as a Dodger. After a solid first half of the season--he was hitting .275 with 14 homers at the All-Star break--the 6'5", 240-pound lefthander batted just .161, with no homers, in 62 at bats for L.A. By early September he'd been banished to the end of the bench. Choi had one start in the season's final month and one at bat in the Dodgers' division series loss to the Cardinals.
"What you saw last year in L.A. wasn't the real Big Choi," says righthander Brad Penny, who came with Choi in the Marlins deal. "We saw what he can do in Florida, and he just got off track after the trade. He put a lot of pressure on himself trying to do well for the Korean people [in L.A.]. You could see him pressing at the plate and getting real frustrated. He's more relaxed now, and he's going to have a big year."
The Dodgers hope a strong year from Choi will boost an offense that ranked ninth in the league in runs (761), eighth in on-base percentage (.332) and eighth in slugging percentage (.423)--and that was with slugging third baseman Adrian Beltre, who signed as a free agent with the Mariners. Choi's greatest strength isn't his power but his ability to get on base (lifetime OBP: .356), a quality particularly valued by the Dodgers' statistically inclined general manager, Paul DePodesta. Manager Jim Tracy likes the idea of hitting Choi second so that he can set the table for L.A.'s new power hitters, rightfielder J.D. Drew and second baseman Jeff Kent, who combined for 58 homers last season. Says Choi, "I need to stop trying to hit home runs all the time. I need to get on base because there are good hitters behind me."
Choi grew up on a farm in Kwang-Ju, and when he was a teenager, his parents would motivate him by telling him he could have meat for dinner only if he had a good day on the baseball field. Choi signed with the Cubs as a 19-year-old and quickly impressed scouts with his superb batting eye. Despite his struggles last year Choi walked 63 times in 416 plate appearances and had a .370 on-base percentage. Still, some on the Dodgers' coaching staff think he may be too patient at the plate. "He needs to be more aggressive," says hitting coach Tim Wallach. "He often gets only one swing, and maybe he fouls that pitch off. We need him to let it fly more often."
The blockbuster deal to acquire Choi and Penny for popular catcher Paul Lo Duca and setup man Guillermo Mota met with fervent criticism in local papers and on talk radio. But it was only part of DePodesta's extreme makeover; since he arrived in L.A. in February '04, he has turned over more than half of the 40-man roster. Only 12 of 25 players from L.A.'s Opening Day 2004 roster are still with the team. DePodesta has been most aggressive in strengthening the rotation: After adding Penny last summer, he signed free-agent righthander Derek Lowe (four years, $36 million) and re-signed lefthander Odalis Perez (three years, $24 million) over the winter. DePodesta felt secure enough about his starters to trade lefty Kaz Ishii to the Mets in March for Jason Phillips, who'll replace Lo Duca behind the plate.
"[Last July] I was scared like the fans, wondering, Where are we going with this? What are we trying to do?" says closer Eric Gagne. "When we signed Lowe, I realized that's where we're going. Pitching is what wins championships, and I think we have one of the best pitching staffs in the league now--in my opinion the best pitching staff in the NL West."
The Dodgers may have a strong and deep rotation in place, but even Choi has no trouble articulating what they will need to improve on their 2004 finish. "More runs," says Choi. "Definitely more runs from me." -- Albert Chen
Odalis Perez had the lowest run support, 3.3 runs per nine innings, of any NL starter last year. In seven of the lefty's 18 no-decisions, he gave up only one earned run.