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Rays will miss the joy of Ji-Man Choi

Tales | The trade to Pittsburgh made sense from a baseball standpoint, but the first baseman was a fan favorite in Tampa Bay.
Ji-Man Choi, right, celebrates with Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, left, after hitting a three-run home run during a game against the Oakland A's  in April at Tropicana Field.
Ji-Man Choi, right, celebrates with Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, left, after hitting a three-run home run during a game against the Oakland A's in April at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 19|Updated Nov. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — Things will be different for the Rays not having Ji-Man Choi around.

Though there was frustration at times with his performance, injury issues and conditioning, Choi definitely delivered some big moments during his 4½ seasons with Tampa Bay.

Plus, he provided entertainment on the field and energy and enthusiasm in the dugout, especially with some of his dance moves. His willingness to engage with fans at the stadium and on social media made him a crowd favorite, and the reciprocatory chanting of his name, which started during the 2019 playoffs, was illustrative of the affection.

The Rays trading Choi was not a surprise, given his declining production (.233 average, .388 slugging percentage, .729 OPS) and increasing salary (a projected $4.5 million). The return from the Pirates, Class A pitcher Jack Hartman, was a bonus, as Choi likely would have been non-tendered if he hadn’t been traded.

Still …

“We’re gonna miss him,” Rays general manager Peter Bendix said. “I’m gonna miss him personally. He’s a lot of fun to be around. He was a great player for us. He added a lot. It just felt like the right move that it was time to make, and I’m sure he’s gonna go to Pittsburgh and continue doing what he does.”

Choi, 31, posted on Instagram that he had hoped to retire with the Rays, the team with whom he spent the most time and felt the most comfortable. He played in the minors with the Mariners and in the majors with the Angels, Yankees and Brewers before being acquired in a June 2018 trade for Brad Miller and cash.

Now it’s on to Pittsburgh, where Choi — the only player on the Pirates roster over 30 — told media he expects to fit in well with the inexperienced group.

“When I first got to the Rays, it was kind of a similar situation. There were a lot of young guys,” he said via Daniel Park, his interpreter with Tampa Bay who may join him in Pittsburgh. “But I’ve learned how to approach them through the veterans who were there at that time.

“If I use my background and experience (and) bring it to the clubhouse with the Pirates, I feel like I should have no problem. I’m trying to bring everyone together and create a good synergy for the team.”

Choi said he heard good things about the team and the city from ex-Pirate Tyler Glasnow and noted he is close with two other South Koreans on the roster, Ji Hwan Bae and Hoy Park.

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Choi also said he soon will undergo a relatively minor procedure to have a bone chip removed from his right elbow, which bothered him at times during the year and may have contributed to his struggles. They included a brutal 41-game second-half stretch during which he hit .124 (15-for-121) with a .451 OPS and sat out a lot.

“Throughout the season, I felt that my elbow was a bit swollen,” he said. “It was hard to extend my arms. Just felt a little uncomfortable throughout the whole season.”

Choi said he expects to be ready for spring training and potentially to play for the South Korean team in the World Baseball Classic in March.

Award time

Shane McClanhan just missed a $1 million bonus by finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young award voting with 10 points (one fourth- and eight fifth-place votes), four less than Houston’s Framber Valdez. The new labor deal includes bonuses for players such as McClanahan, who are not yet eligible for arbitration, and finish in the top five in Cy Young or MVP voting. McClanahan, who made $711,400 last year, will still get some money from the $50 million bonus pool, funded by Major League Baseball, by ranking in the top 100 of the pre-arbitration players based on a new statistical formula. ... Kevin Cash, who won the last two Manager of the Year awards, finished sixth. ... Yandy Diaz got one ninth-place vote for MVP.

Rays rumblings

Then-Rays pitcher Charlie Morton reads to fans during the 2020 FanFest at Tropicana Field. FanFest is expected to return to the Trop in February.
Then-Rays pitcher Charlie Morton reads to fans during the 2020 FanFest at Tropicana Field. FanFest is expected to return to the Trop in February. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

At the quarterly league meeting last week, principal owner Stuart Sternberg provided a standard update to the Executive Council on the stadium situation where he, per commissioner Rob Manfred, “described ongoing conversations across the Tampa Bay region.” … Related, the Rays seem likely to be part of one of the bids due Dec. 2 for redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site, including a new stadium. … Some new creative ticket packages for the 2023 season are in the works, with details to come. Before the 2020 pandemic disruption, the team offered a Ballpark Pass, with standing room access to unlimited games for a monthly fee. … FanFest is expected to return to the Trop in February. … Of the three minor-league pitchers acquired last week, right-hander Marcus Johnson, a 2022 fourth-round pick from Duke by Miami, may have the highest upside. … Centerfielder Jose Siri is playing for Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican league. … With Brady Williams joining the big-league coaching staff, team officials are working to soon hire a new manager for Triple-A Durham, likely from within. … Ex-Rays non-tendered Friday and now free agents include infielder Yu Chang, pitcher Tommy Romero, catcher Luke Maile. ... Team officials are hoping to soon clarify their spring training plans. With their Port Charlotte complex damaged by Hurricane Ian, they have been considering alternatives, including basing the big-league team at the Trop, which could then require changes to the exhibition schedule. … There is also a March 9 exhibition against Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic team. Wouldn’t it have been better to play the Dominican team, which is likely to include Wander Franco and will be managed by bench coach Rodney Linares?... Glasnow was part of Monday’s “Good Morning America” segment to pick Tampa’s best pie and cast the deciding vote for the key lime entry from Mike’s Pies. ... The Rays and Rockies had a minors-most 14 players named All-Stars. ... Allowing Paul Hoover to leave his major-league field coordinator post to go with new Royals manager Matt Quatraro as bench coach was a bit against usual procedure, but Bendix said the Rays decide “case by case,” and “the fact that he was getting a promotion is certainly a component of it.”

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