Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi’s Spring Training setback will likely leave him sidelined for the first month of the season.
Choi will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Wednesday morning, manager Kevin Cash announced Tuesday. The Rays will develop a better sense of Choi’s recovery timetable after gaining a clearer understanding of what the issue is during the operation, but the club’s early expectation is that he will be out for three to five weeks.
“We’re going to really need Ji-Man to work hard throughout the rehab process, while he’s rehabbing his knee, to get the rest of his body in as good a shape as possible to speed that up so we can see him back on the field, in the lineup for us quickly,” Cash said before the Rays’ spring finale against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla.
Choi’s right knee has been an issue since the outset of Spring Training. Soreness forced him to miss a day during the workout phase of camp. He returned to the field and played in five games, going 4-for-11 with a double and three walks, but the tightness he previously felt returned in mid-March.
Choi received a cortisone shot on March 13 and sat out for 10 days with no baseball activities. The Rays ramped up his workouts early last week, getting to the point where he participated in limited on-field activities with an eye on coming off the 10-day injured list early in the season. But Choi reported additional soreness in his knee on Monday, at which point the club shut him down and had him see a doctor.
The timeline for Choi’s return could change depending on what doctors see when they scope his knee. Cash said it could be different, for instance, if they find a loose body in his knee. But the timeframe to return to the field after an arthroscopic knee cleanup procedure is typically three to five weeks. Even that would keep the first baseman out for most or all of April.
“I don’t think anything has been totally defined on, ‘Here’s the issue,’” Cash said. “We know there is an issue, so until they go in and check it out, I [don’t] think we’ll have the best sense.”
In Choi’s absence, the Rays plan to use Yoshi Tsutsugo and Yandy Díaz at first base. Mike Brosseau is another option, although Tampa Bay can use him all over the infield. Tsutsugo could be the team’s primary option against right-handed pitchers -- he started Tuesday’s game at first, batting leadoff -- while Díaz could start there or at third base against lefties.
Tsutsugo played third base and left field when he wasn’t the designated hitter last year, but the Rays asked him to take on first-base duties at the start of Spring Training. The club has been quite pleased with how well Tsutsugo has handled the assignment, and it turned out to be a necessary shift for him given Tampa Bay’s current need at the position.
“At first, I was a little uncomfortable and maybe worried about defending first base,” Tsutsugo said recently. “But as I played, I felt more comfortable and better at this position.”
Tsutsugo has also shown some encouraging signs at the plate this spring, whether his Grapefruit League numbers reflect that or not. He was better at timing up high-velocity fastballs, an issue for him during his first Major League season last year, and he maintained his discipline by walking in seven of his first 44 plate appearances. The Rays believe the Japanese slugger is bound for a bounceback season after hitting just .197/.314/.395 last year.
“You try not to get too consumed with Spring Training results, but there are some guys that you do want to see the intent to be there, to work on some of whatever feedback or corrections that they are trying to accomplish from last year to this year,” Cash said on Monday. “And it looks like Yoshi has done that. He seems very comfortable. We've asked a lot of him this spring, like last year. The work at first base with [coach Rodney Linares] has been very, very good. I think we're going to see a different Yoshi.”