Draft could be close to home for UTA's Choice
Local college star hoping to be chosen by Rangers at No. 15
ARLINGTON -- The First-Year Player Draft looms. Michael Choice, a star center fielder for the University of Texas at Arlington, can't help but wonder if he'll be playing 10 minutes away from home.Growing up in nearby Mansfield, Texas, he loves the Rangers. Playing college ball just a few blocks away from Rangers Ballpark, the team definitely knows him and has been following him closely.
"Growing up in Arlington, I always watched the Rangers," Choice said. "That would honestly be a dream come true, to be able to be a part of the Rangers organization. Obviously, going into this year, I never thought I would be this high. So talks of falling to the Rangers, that's crazy to think about, having to fall to the 15th pick."The Rangers have four of the first 50 picks in the Draft, which will be held June 7-9 and will be aired live by MLB.com and MLB Network. They have the 15th overall pick as compensation for being unable to sign Matt Purke, their first-round pick last year. They also have the 22nd overall pick, as well as compensation picks at Nos. 45 and 50 for losing ranked free agents Marlon Byrd and Ivan Rodriguez. Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine and director of scouting A.J. Preller have seen Choice. So have representatives from just about every Major League team. The Rangers are doubtful that he'll still be around at No. 15. There is no doubt about his offensive talent. Scouts have projected him as a bigger version of Byrd at the next level, with the upside of a Vernon Wells. The question is if he'll be a well-rounded player like Wells, the Blue Jays All-Star center fielder who is also from Arlington, or if he'll end up being a one-dimensional offensive stud like Ben Grieve, another Arlington product. But Choice is not obsessing over all of that. "Marlon is a great player, I like him a lot. I went to a lot of Rangers games last year and got a chance to watch him play," Choice said. "I like the way he plays. It's not like he's going to play 15 years and relax like a lot of guys. He plays hard every day. "I'm just out here trying to work hard and trying to get to the highest level, which is the Major Leagues. Whatever it takes to get there." Choice's biggest asset is his power. He entered the season ranked 10th all-time at UTA in home runs with 18. He's almost equaled that total this season alone with 16 despite playing his home games in a stadium considered by many to be a pitcher's park, because the wind consistently blows in. "I throw to him every day and it never gets old. It's not like I'm used to seeing it. It amazes me what he does," UTA assistant coach K.J. Hendricks said. "I'll throw some pitches that are low and away that are off the plate, and he'll hammer it out for a score. Just things that are very unique that don't come along very often." But Choice prides himself on all aspects of his game, particularly on the offensive end. Heading into last weekend, Choice led the nation in walks (70), intentional walks (19) and on-base percentage (.579) and had reached base safely in 65 consecutive games dating to last season. His .397 batting average also led the conference. "Just the raw tools I have -- speed, power, good arm strength and those things," Choice said when asked about his best assets. "I just work hard and keep trying to perfect my game eventually to get to the point where I want to be." Choice says that scouts have liked the way he's played center field, but a more likely scenario seems to be that he'll be moved to one of the corner spots. The Rangers would be his preference, of course, but he won't for know sure until the Draft happens. "I looked and saw that they had two first-round picks and two supplemental picks," Choice said. "And I thought, 'Man, that'd be great. They have four picks. Just to get into one of those.' ... It's pretty cool to be in the situation that I'm in now. "I took batting practice for some of their guys out here at our field, I want to say before our season started. But I haven't done anything for them since then. I talked to the area guy, Jay Eddings, earlier this year and he said he'll keep in contact with me and get a hold of me around this time of the year." Choice has come far since he played at Mansfield Timberview, southwest of Arlington. He was not drafted out of high school and UTA was the only school that offered him a chance to play. Choice's stock skyrocketed toward the end of his sophomore season, when he earned a place on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. He hit .413 with 11 home runs and 52 RBIs that season for the Mavericks. He hit for the cycle the same day he was named to the national team. "It kind of just got added midway through last year," Choice said. "It just kind of came to me. I lifted a lot of weights freshman year to try and put on a little weight. I guess it's just getting older. That man strength just kind of came in." There was some doubt as to what Choice could accomplish against higher-profile opponents. But he hit .350 that summer with three home runs and 13 RBIs. He hit three homers in the World Baseball Challenge -- the most at the tournament -- and finished the summer with a .453 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage. "That was great. That's the kind of experience that lets you know that's where you want to be, at a high level," Choice said. "Playing in front of good crowds and nice stadiums, I felt like I was a Minor League baseball player out there. Wood bats, top-level players in the country, it was fun." According to Choice, his performance against elite competition is what put him on the map. Even aside from the national team, however, Choice has a career .375 batting average in the 17 games that UTA -- a member of the Southland Conference -- has played against the much more powerful Big 12.
"A lot of scouts came out to see what I could do on that level because there are always questions about coming from a smaller school and that type of thing," Choice said. "To be able to watch me do it on the level that other guys are playing, like SEC, ACC, Pac-10 and that deal, that's huge."Rangers fans might best remember the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team for most recently producing Texas' 2008 first-round pick, current Rangers first baseman Justin Smoak. "Team USA is worldwide known, but getting my name out there, and for me personally, it has definitely helped me out," Smoak said. "Playing against guys like that and seeing what they're capable of doing, you see what you have to do to get to that level." The scouts have been out in droves to see Choice perform this season. According to UTA Sports Information, there were 27 scouts in attendance two-plus hours before first pitch on the first weekend of the season. The first month of the year, there were anywhere between 15-22 scouts at every game. The team that gets Choice will not only see his power and skill set as a player, but the type of work ethic and overall character that he brings each day. "He's going to keep working hard," Hendricks said. "He's a humble man, he's going to do what it takes to get it done. ... They'll like him even more wherever he goes because of his work ethic and his attitude." MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire First-Year Player Draft on MLB.com/Live. The first round and Compensation Round A will be broadcast live from MLB Network's Studio 42 in Secaucus, N.J., on MLB.com and MLB Network on Monday, June 7, beginning with the Draft preview show at 5 p.m. CT. MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo will join Greg Amsinger, Harold Reynolds, John Hart, Peter Gammons and Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis on Monday's broadcast. Coverage for Rounds 2-50 will shift exclusively to MLB.com/Live, where Rounds 2-30 will be streamed on Tuesday, beginning at 11 a.m. CT, and Rounds 31-50 will be streamed on Wednesday, also starting at 11 a.m. CT. Host Pete McCarthy will be joined by Mayo and former general manager Jim Duquette.
Chris Cox is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.