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S. Korea manager wants Pirates 1B Choi Ji-man on board for WBC after surgery

Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Choi Ji-man speaks with reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul last Sunday. (Yonhap)
Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Choi Ji-man speaks with reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul last Sunday. (Yonhap)

On South Korea's 30-man roster for this year's World Baseball Classic, the status of Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Choi Ji-man is the one big question mark.

Following an offseason elbow operation, Choi will need permission from his new club to represent the country at the March tournament. South Korea's manager, Lee Kang-chul, doesn't want to have to resort to plan B.

Last week, Lee selected Choi for the WBC, even though Choi is still recovering from a November elbow surgery. The timeline for Choi's return could be anywhere between eight and 12 weeks. With South Korea's first game set for March 9 against Australia, Choi will find himself in a time crunch to get ready for the national team.

More crucially, the Pirates will have to give him the go-ahead sign. Before leaving for the United States on Sunday, Choi told reporters the Pirates' trainer and physician will check on his elbow in the coming days. He also said he had already informed the club of his desire to represent South Korea but the Pirates weren't going to grant Choi his wish before they could determine he wouldn't jeopardize the 2023 season by playing at the WBC at less than 100 percent.

Lee, who returned from a scouting trip to Sydney on Monday evening, said he'd love to keep Choi on board for the big tournament.

"I hope his talks with the club go well. Choi Ji-man is a player we've wanted to take all along," Lee said. "We do have a contingency plan in case he can't go. But I hope I don't end up in a situation where I have to use an alternative. Ideally, we will have Choi Ji-man with us."

Teams participating in the WBC can make roster changes for medical reasons by the Feb. 7 deadline. If Choi stays on, he will be one of three major leaguers for South Korea, joined by San Diego Padres infielder Kim Ha-seong and St. Louis Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman, a half-Korean star who has a Korean-born mother.

Choi, 31, has 486 big league games under his belt. He enjoyed his best years with the Tampa Bay Rays, who acquired him from the Milwaukee Brewers in a midseason trade in 2018 and shipped him to the Pirates in November, one season before Choi hits the open market.

In 414 games across parts of five seasons with the Rays, Choi batted .245/.352/.431 with 52 home runs and 203 RBIs. In 2022, Choi was hobbled by injuries, and batted just .233/.341/.388 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs in 113 games.

While Choi's power numbers have dipped in recent years, he still offers strong on-base skills and solid defense at first base.

On the current South Korean roster, KT Wiz veteran Park Byung-ho is another option at first base. But Park himself is coming off a serious ankle injury that limited him to designated-hitting duties late last season in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). When healthy, Park has been an above average defender with a soft hand, though his mobility will probably remain limited at the WBC.

Park's Wiz teammate, Kang Baek-ho, has some experience playing first base, but he has been a far worse defensive player than Park. Kang will be better served as a left-handed designated hitter. (Yonhap)

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