By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- A year away from free agency in Major League Baseball (MLB), South Korean outfielder Choo Shin-soo of the Cleveland Indians said Thursday he'd like to "play for a winning ball club."
Upon returning home from the 2012 major league season earlier in the day, Choo said at a press conference here that if he could choose a team, he would go with a title contender.
"I grew up winning championships since I was young and I am used to winning," the 30-year-old said. "And it's been disappointing to go through the same thing in the past three years (with the Indians missing the playoffs). I would like to play for a strong team that contends for the championship."
Choo, the only South Korean in the majors, bounced back this year after an injury-plagued 2011 season, during which he was also arrested for drunk-driving charges.
This year, Choo played in 155 games, most since 2009, and batted .289 with 16 home runs, 67 RBI and 21 steals. In 2011, a year after he put up his second straight season with at least 20 homers and 20 steals, Choo only managed eight home runs and 12 steals in 85 games with a .259 average.
Despite Choo's contribution, the Indians ended fourth among five clubs in the American League Central, with 68 wins and 94 losses. Manager Manny Acta was fired in late September with six games remaining in the season.
The Indians led the division in June, but went 24-53 in the second half. They suffered 24 losses in August, tying the franchise record for defeats in a month. The Tribes, who also went through a second-half swoon in 2011, haven't been to the playoffs since 2007.
Though he came up shy of a '20-20' season, Choo set career-highs with 88 runs scored and 43 doubles, which placed him fifth in the American League.
The solid season should go a long way toward raising his stocks with the free agency looming after the 2013 season. Choo made $4.9 million this season and could be in for a big payday, especially with uber-agent Scott Boras representing him.
Choo insisted the Indians also have a wealth of young talent and they may only be a few moves away from becoming a contending team. Choo said, however, he doesn't know whether he will be a part of the Indians' future.
"Baseball has so many variables, and my agent and I don't know whether I will be traded or not," he said. "Only the team knows, and I can't give you a clear answer at this point. But the one thing is for sure: I'd like to play for a winning team."
Choo had batted mostly third in the lineup in recent seasons, but he appeared in 99 games this year at the top of the order. As the leadoff man, Choo had 12 homers and 13 steals along with a .310 average.
Choo said he doesn't really care where he hits in the lineup as long as he gets to play on a regular basis, though batting leadoff certainly didn't hurt.
"You'd see more fastballs on first pitches at the leadoff spot than in the middle of the order," Choo said. "I had a lot of fastballs to hit, or at least pitches close to the strike zone. And there was less pressure mentally in batting first."
To further increase his value, though, the left-handed Choo must start hitting better against left-handed pitchers.
This season, he hit just .199 against lefties in 206 at-bats with two home runs, compared to a .327 average against the right-handers.
Choo, who debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 2005 and only began playing regularly with the Indians in 2008, carries a .249 average against southpaws and a .307 mark against righties in his career.
Choo also had to overcome his fears of inside pitches, in particular from lefties. In June last year, Choo broke his left thumb when the then-San Francisco Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez nailed him with a pitch. Then in April this year, Sanchez, now pitching for the Kansas City Royals, hit him again, this time on his right leg.
This year, Choo was plunked 14 times by a pitch, eight of them against southpaws.
Choo said he sought out help from other left-handed sluggers, such as Prince Fielder of the Detroit Tigers and Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds, on how to hit left-handers. Because everyone has a different approach at the plate, Choo said he didn't really get one particular piece of advice that he took to heart.
It came down to exorcising the devil on his own, Choo said.
"I didn't want to get hit, and so I would step back a little at the plate, but I still kept getting nailed," he said. "Then I decided I couldn't play baseball unless I overcame this fear. I became more aggressive and pitchers started throwing more mistakes. I can't say I am 100 percent over it, but I am confident I will be better next year."
With the World Baseball Classic (WBC) scheduled to start next March, Choo said he'd love to represent South Korea once again. He was a key member of Korea's gold medal-winning team at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and also the runner-up squad at the 2009 WBC.
Choo said he would need to discuss the situation with the new Indians' manager, Terry Francona, who Choo said may want to hold back some key players for the spring training that overlaps with the WBC. The player said he is hoping for "good news" in the near future regarding his status for the WBC.
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