3/26/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Reds expect new leading man Choo to star in Cincy
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Shin-Soo Choo is pleasant, thoughtful and polite, but his mere presence at the top of Reds' lineup is the club's not-so-subtle way of sending a warning to all foes.
Cincinnati doesn't just want to repeat as National League Central champion, it expects to win the World Series -- this season.
"I think that's pretty much what they're saying," Reds third baseman Todd Frazier agreed.
W: Lowe L: Hoover SV: Frieri
Despite knowing full well that he was eligible to become a free agent after this season, the Reds did not blink when acquiring Choo from the Indians. It meant dealing away center fielder Drew Stubbs and promising shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius in the three-way deal with the D-backs. The Reds got their leadoff hitter, the catalyst and the producer they so desperately craved and didn't have last season.
Now they have one year to get it right with all of the pieces to the puzzle finally seemingly in place. It's not that up-and-coming leadoff hitter and top prospect Billy Hamilton is chopped liver, but Choo is a proven entity and he is here now.
"He's going to be a huge asset to the team, both on the field and in the clubhouse," right fielder Jay Bruce said.
Not only is the 30-year-old Choo capable of getting on first base to set the table for Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and the rest of the order, he can just as easily make it a 1-0 game after one at-bat. He's also more than capable of driving in runs if men in the bottom third of the order reach base.
"A lot of leadoff hitters run and steal bases. I'm not that type of player," Choo said. "I have home run power and can do damage. I always think, wherever I hit, I will do the same thing. I'm not going to change. That's what I've proved with my numbers. If I see a good first pitch, I will swing. If I take a walk or get hit by a pitch -- there are a lot of options to get to first base."
Choo batted .283 with 16 home runs, 67 RBIs and 21 steals in 155 games last season for Cleveland. He also struck out 150 times. But in 99 games as the leadoff hitter, he batted .310 with a .389 on-base percentage. Lifetime, regardless of his spot in the order, his OBP is .381.
The Reds, despite winning 97 games and their division, got little out of the top of the order regardless of who was there. Leadoff men combined to bat .208 with a .254 on-base percentage, which is historically low production considering no team since the 1981 Blue Jays (.238 OBP from the top spot) had been that poor.
Subsequently, the Reds ranked ninth in the NL in runs scored. In the postseason, they were eliminated by the Giants in five games during the NL Division Series.
"With Choo up there, it's going to be a lot of fun," catcher Devin Mesoraco said. "He's a guy that can hit the gaps and drive in runs. I'm glad he's on our side. It wasn't fun facing him. He made adjustments throughout at-bats. You could never pitch him the same way twice. He's a good, professional hitter."
Choo's approach to hitting is one of consistency and diligence. During one recent morning session of batting practice, he asked coach Juan Lopez to throw one set of pitches outside and his next time up, he directed Lopez to come inside.
Regardless of location, each ball was pounded squarely on the barrel of the bat for line drives. No swing was wasted. Manager Dusty Baker was impressed, noting that Choo's swing was "rhythmic until the point of explosion." Teammates have noticed this as well.
"When you watch him in batting practice, he's just so smooth," Frazier said. "It's a swing that looks so effortless. It's 'lah-dee-dah,' and then 'boom!' It's nice to see those kinds of swings."
Mesoraco, a rookie last season, studied Choo's hitting approach with Cleveland on video when he was going over game plans with pitchers. He saw it up close when crouched behind the plate with Choo in front of him as the opposition.
And last month as Mesoraco participated in the first Reds' live BP session, he saw more of the same from his new teammate.
"He never looks fooled or looks bad at the plate," Mesoraco said. "He's a force at the top of the lineup. He can really work a count."
A native of Pusan, South Korea, Choo grew up not letting anyone ever outprepare him -- even teammates. His work ethic is one of going full speed -- at all times.
"I don't do it for anybody. I do it for me. That's my routine," Choo said. "I feel like if I'm not doing it, I won't stay in the big leagues anymore. That's what I did in the Minor Leagues or Korea. I keep thinking, 'How can I do better?' If you do 10 swings, I think, 'How can I do better?' So I might go 11 or 12 swings. Maybe that's Korean culture, to always do more than other players."
Even when Choo recently missed a week of exhibition games because of back spasms, the Reds had to put a governor on him. Even though he felt better relatively quick, Baker didn't want him to reaggravate the injury in meaningless spring games.
"This guy pushes the envelope big time," Baker said. "I was wondering about that before we got him. Usually you're worried about a guy being lazy and not a worker. This guy is the opposite."
The one still relatively unknown commodity about Choo is his skill as a center fielder. He was the primary right fielder in Cleveland. In Cincinnati, where Bruce mans right field, Choo will move to the middle of the field, where he's played only 10 times over his career. His lack of familiarity for the spot is far less a concern to the Reds compared to the upside of his potential leadoff prowess.
Admittedly uncomfortable in the early days of camp, Choo has put as much effort in improving defensively as he has with his hitting. He has worked regularly with coaches Billy Hatcher and Eric Davis.
"Early, I didn't have any tough, hard line drives," Choo said. "I had maybe two -- a line drive to the warning track that [the Indians' Jason] Giambi hit. There was a sun ball one time against the Padres that [Chase] Headley hit with the bases loaded. I remember, because I'm focused. Other than that, it's been routine. The most important thing is I'm feeling comfortable in center field."
Bruce, who was at one point willing to move over to center field to accommodate Choo, believes his new teammate will be successful at his new spot.
"Obviously, there is only one Drew Stubbs in my opinion as far as the range he possesses," Bruce said. "But Choo has worked extremely hard and takes a lot of pride in what he does. He's going to be just fine out there. There won't be any question as to whether or not he can play the position."
Choo declined South Korea's invitation to play in the World Baseball Classic, because he wanted to have time to get to know his new Reds teammates. He has made it a point to mingle around all sections of the clubhouse and try to get to know each teammate.
Fluent in English, Choo stopped using an interpreter a couple of years into his big league career. It's helped eliminate miscommunication and soften cultural differences.
"Sometimes when you have a translator, I will say 100 percent to him, but the translator might not say 100 percent," Choo said. "I knew it would take a lot of time to do it, but I wanted to learn. I want to spend time with my teammates. That's a big part of baseball. Teammates are very important. That's why I didn't play in the WBC. My teammates are like my family.
"Now I'm really comfortable in the clubhouse. Everyone talks to me and jokes around. Now we're ready to start the season. I can't wait."
Choo's efforts have been noticed, and it earned him clubhouse respect from all corners almost immediately.
"He's really come over here and taken well to everyone. He's a good guy," Bruce said.
"In any job, you need to prove yourself," Frazier said. "He's been doing it a long time. I don't think he'll have any trouble. Once he gets to Cincinnati and then fans take him in, I think he'll love it here and want to stay here for the end of his career."
For now, the Reds and Choo are taking it one year at a time. If all goes according to the blue print, especially from his bat at the top of the order, it could a very special year for Cincinnati.