December 23, 2013
Rangers Choose Choo
Signed OF-L Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year deal worth $130 million. [12/21]
As boring as last winter was for Rangers fans, Jon Daniels has atoned for it this offseason with two big splashes. First Daniels acquired Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler; now he lassos the best free-agent hitter available away from the Yankees for less raw money (though the deals are comparable after taxes are considered). Combined, Fielder and Choo are two of the league's top hitters against right-handed pitching, and among the most reliable on-base machines in the majors. Even last year, a relative disappointment for Fielder, he still reached base at a 36 percent clip.
While Fielder languished in Detroit, Choo flourished in Cincinnati. The Korea native embraced a move to center field and the leadoff position as warmly as one joining a new team and entering a contract year could. Along the way, he posted the second-best OBP in the National League, trailing only former teammate Joey Votto. Of course, there is something to be said for how Choo did it. Although he's always walked at a good rate and been struck by a fair number of pitches, last season he took both to new heights. In fact, his 26 HBP were the most since Chase Utley was pegged with 27 pitches in 2008.
The good new for the Rangers is, should Choo see his walk and hit-by-pitch rates regress, he can cover with other skills. Choo possesses one of the best all-around offensive games in the league, and has the ability to hit for better-than-norm batting averages and slugging percentages. Additionally, he's a threat to hit 20 home runs and swipe 20 bags in a season, something he's already done three times.
The questions then are not whether Choo will hit, but where he'll play and where he'll bat against left-handed pitching. Presumably Ron Washington plans on sliding Choo back to a corner position, likely left field, where his arm cancels out some of his range-based deficiencies. Unfortunately, hiding Choo's bat against southpaws is a tougher dilemma. It is perhaps worth noting that Choo's issues against lefties—he has a .241 multiyear True Average versus them—stem not from a poor OBP, but rather no proven ability to hit for average or power against same-side pitching. Given that Choo has still managed to get on base more than 33 percent of the time, it's possible the Rangers suck it up and play him daily anyway.
There is risk here that the final year or two won't be pretty. That's the case with every seven-year deal, however. What's more concerning is what the Rangers will do in three or four years' time, should both Choo and Fielder's gloves demand the DH spot. That's a possibility Daniels and the Rangers have likely thought about already. For now, Choo should give Texas another middle-of-the-order bat, one capable of helping to replace Josh Hamilton and, perhaps, Nelson Cruz. —R.J. Anderson
Sure, Arlington no longer plays like the launching pad it used to and the AL is the harder league to move to, but Shin-Soo Choo’s stock goes up as he joins a formidable lineup in Texas. Choo’s ability to get on base (.423 OBP in 2013) will be maximized by the projected lineup of Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre hitting behind him. He scored 107 runs last year and I would anticipate that number holding in 2014. Choo will also benefit from hitting behind a nonpitcher in the American League. In 2013 Choo hit lead off in 143 games under Dusty Baker and I would expect Ron Washington to use him similarly. There is a red flag to keep in mind: Choo hit .215/.347/.265 in 221 PAs against lefties last year. It’s a trend that started in 2012 and looks to get worse as he ages. Still, Choo should be a highly sought-after outfielder in every format in 2014. Plate discipline tends to age well.
Prince Fielder/Adrian Beltre
Shin-Soo Choo gets on base at a much higher clip than either Leonys Martin or Elvis Andrus, so placing him at the top of the Rangers’ lineup greatly benefits the big boys in the middle. Expect Fielder and Beltre’s RBI opportunities to increase.
Martin was projected to lead off for the Rangers in 2014. With Choo in the fold he likely gets relegated to hitting eighth or ninth, depending on what Ron Washington wants to do with Jurickson Profar. Martin’s value is tied mainly to his legs, so if he’s hitting ninth he’ll have less of a chance to utilize that tool due to the decrease in total PAs that accompanies hitting at the bottom of the order.
Choice was primed to be the Rangers’ starting left fielder in 2014, but Choo’s arrival puts his immediate future in limbo. Choice gets on base (11.5 walk percentage in Triple-A last year) and maybe that’s enough to earn him some playing time over a guy like Mitch Moreland. Choice does handle lefties well enough to entertain a platoon of sorts with Choo, but all of that is a far cry from major league regular.
With Choo, Prince Fielder and Michael Choice in the fold, it’s getting harder to imagine Moreland sticking in the Rangers' lineup for long. Moreland followed up an okay 2012 with a meh 2013. At 27 it’s unlikely that he’ll find the power he hinted at in the minor leagues. Given their options at designated hitter, it’s possible that Moreland finds his playing time slashed, which hurts his overall fantasy value. —Mauricio Rubio
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson