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02/22/08 2:37 PM ET

Choo's big league path faces obstacles

Coming off elbow surgery, outfielder could join Korean military

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- A left elbow injury that required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery has proven to be a speed bump in the career of outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.

And another, more significant bump in the road might be looming in the not-too-distant future.

As an able-bodied male citizen of South Korea, Choo, who turns 26 in July, is obligated to serve between 24 and 28 months in the South Korean military before he turns 30. Such service, obviously, would put a damper on his big league dreams.

"I'm not thinking about it right now," Choo said. "But it would be tough. For two years to not play baseball, then come back, it's really tough. Pitchers? Maybe. But hitters? It's tough."

Some loopholes do exist. For one, Choo could become a U.S. citizen, though he hasn't seriously entertained that possibility yet.

Choo could also follow the path of South Korean-born ballplayers such as Chan Ho Park and Byung-Hyun Kim and receive a military exemption by helping Korea win the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games in China.

That's easier said than done, of course. Korea won the gold medal in baseball at the 1998 and 2002 Asian Games, but Taiwan won it in 2006.

"Five or seven years ago, it was easier to win a gold medal," Choo said. "But not anymore. Taiwan and Japan have a lot of good baseball players now."

The Indians were aware of Choo's potential military obligation when they acquired him from the Mariners in 2006, and they are hoping he can avoid service.

In the meantime, Choo's more pressing concern is the left elbow ligament replacement surgery that will have him playing catch-up this season. He'll be on the club's 25-man roster once he's fully recovered, but that won't be until May, at the earliest.

Perhaps, in retrospect, Tommy John surgery was unavoidable for Choo. Position players aren't exactly prone to the type of debilitating elbow injuries that lead to the procedure. But Choo hasn't always been solely a position player.

Before beginning his professional career with the Mariners in 2001, Choo was a pitcher and an outfielder in South Korea. And he was hardly treated with the type of tender love and care that is so common for hurlers here.

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"A lot of good players and top prospects in Korea signed with a professional team or went to college and couldn't play anymore," he said. "A lot of them got injured and had to have surgery. It's better there now, but there used to be a lot of injuries."

Choo said it was not atypical, in his high school career, for him to start games on back-to-back days and pitch relief on the third. He remembers his performance for the Korean Junior National Team in 2000, in the Junior AAA Championships against the USA.

"I pitched the seventh inning," he said. "In the eighth, ninth and 10th, I was in center field. And I pitched the 11th, 12th and 13th."

Talk about multitasking.

All this arm abuse began to catch up with Choo during rookie ball in '01. He had been converted strictly to outfield duty and begun to show off his prowess at the plate, but his elbow bothered him from time to time.

That trend continued for the next six years.

"My elbow would feel sore two or three times every season," Choo said.

But Choo played on. He was traded to the Tribe in July 2006, and he quickly burst onto the scene in Cleveland, batting .295 with three homers and 22 RBIs in 45 games as the regular right fielder at the end of that season.

The signing of Trot Nixon last winter bumped Choo back to Triple-A Buffalo, where the Indians wanted him to refine his performance against left-handed pitching and learn to play left field. He was on the radar and in the mix. All he needed was an opening.

That opening came in June, when David Dellucci went down with a left hamstring tear. But by that point, Choo's elbow soreness had become unbearable.

He wavered on whether he should have Tommy John surgery or rehab the problem.

"For two months, I thought, 'Surgery or not? Surgery or not?'" he said. "At the end of the season, I was still thinking about it. A month later, I had the surgery. I started thinking that if I'm playing baseball for five or 10 years, I don't want to have to worry about the elbow. I need to fix it."

Choo appears to be progressing well. Five months post-surgery, he is throwing out to 90 feet and taking soft toss in the batting cages. He should be able to serve as the designated hitter in Grapefruit League games.

The Indians believe Choo can help them, once he's healthy.

"I like the way he plays," manager Eric Wedge said. "He puts up good at-bats, and he can play well in right field or left field. He's a nice all-around player. He's still young and still has a lot to learn, but he's going to be OK."

Despite the dual distractions of surgery and conscription, Choo maintains high hopes for his career.

"I'll work hard every day," he said. "Some days it will be good, and some it will be bad. But I don't want to worry about anything. You bust your butt, and someday good things will come."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.