2 Los angeles Dodgers

Even in the midst of an extreme makeover, the West champs are still contenders
April 03, 2005

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

In Fact

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.

Enemy Lines

an opposing team's scout sizes up the Dodgers

"THE DODGERS lost a key part of their bullpen in setup man Guillermo Mota. I'm not sure they have people to get to closer Eric Gagne. Another concern is Gagne's sprained left knee. It hasn't come around like they'd hoped.... The starting pitching has depth but no one who stands out. They're a bunch of Number 3 to Number 5 type guys. One pitcher who has impressed is Dennis Houlton, whom they picked up in the Rule V draft. He has an above-average curveball and has kept his pitches in good spots.... Hee-Seop Choi has yet to show enough offensively to prove he deserves a full-time job at first base, but the Dodgers don't have an option other than maybe moving Jeff Kent over.... This team is going to have power, but it's also going to give up runs. The infield defense will suffer greatly with the loss of Adrian Beltre at third and Alex Cora at second.... J.D. Drew is a five-tool player, but you have to question his durability.... The Dodgers' off-season moves haven't helped the club very much, but they'll benefit from being in a weak division."

The Lineup

projected roster with 2004 statistics

Batting Order

SS Izturis

1B Choi

RF Drew

2B Kent

CF Bradley

LF Werth

3B Valentin

C Phillips

MILTON BRADLEY

B-T S-R

PVR 148

BA .267

HR 19

RBI 67

SB 15

JAYSON WERTH

B-T R

PVR 191

BA .262

HR 16

RBI 47

SB 4

J.D. DREW [New acquisition]

B-T L-R

PVR 67

BA .305

HR 31

RBI 93

SB 12

CESAR IZTURIS

B-T S-R

PVR 136

BA .288

HR 4

RBI 62

SB 25

JEFF KENT [New acquisition]

B-T R

PVR 50

BA .289

HR 27

RBI 107

SB 7

JOSE VALENTIN

B-T L-R

PVR 228

BA .216

HR 30

RBI 70

SB 8

HEE-SEOP CHOI

B-T L

PVR 196

BA .251

HR 15

RBI 46

SB 1

JASON PHILLIPS [New acquisition]

B-T R

PVR 236

BA .218

HR 7

RBI 34

SB 0

BENCH

RICKY LEDEE [New acquisition]

B-T L

PVR 300

BA .233

HR 7

RBI 30

SB 3

ANTONIO PEREZ*

B-T R

PVR 317

BA .296

HR 22

RBI 88

SB 23

PAUL BAKO [New acquisition]

B-T L-R

PVR 354

BA .203

HR 1

RBI 10

SB 1

2004 RECORD

93--69

1st in NL West

MANAGER

Jim Tracy

fifth season with Los Angeles

ROTATION

[originallink:10808656:720496]

PITCHER

PVR

W

L

S

WHIP

ERA

RH Eric Gagne

6

7

3

45

0.91

2.19

RH Yhency Brazoban

115

6

2

0

1.22

2.48

RH Giovanni Carrara

217

5

2

2

1.23

2.18

New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched *Triple A stats

PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)

COLOR PHOTOBERNIE NUNEZ/GETTY IMAGES SETUP MAN Choi was brought in not for his power but for his OBP--and now he has two big bats behind him to drive him home. COLOR PHOTOTOM DIPACEKent

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)