My thoughts on the Rangers signing Shin-Soo Choo

On my quest to unadulterated free thought and objectivity, lately I’ve implemented a new strategy whenever a baseball transaction crosses the wire: Don’t read anything, don’t listen to anybody, not until my own thoughts have been transcribed. In the past what I’ve realized is, even though I have generally agreed with my analytical idols such as Joey Matschulat, Keith Law, Adam Morris and Michael Hindman, by reading (or listening to) what they have to write (or say) on a given topic, invariably my opinion is tainted because it’s difficult to disagree with those whom I birthed so much of my baseball knowledge from. So, in times where I have written after having digested their thoughts, my opinion was slanted to more closely align with what they felt, rather than a pure, unspoiled seed that I myself planted. To dispute the individuals I hold so much reverence for is like slapping the truth in the face, and I just wasn’t very comfortable with that proposition until very recently. I’m little more than a novice in the world of breaking down baseball decisions, but I wasn’t made to be anyone’s little brother; this is me, and this is what I think.

Shin-Soo Choo Reds Sept. 2, 2013_1378150347766_843730_ver1.0_640_480With that said, today the Texas Rangers signed arguably the biggest free agent remaining on the market, Shin-Soo Choo, to an enormous 7-year, $130 million commitment. In terms of money, it’s the largest free agent investment made in the decade-long tenure of general manager Jon Daniels, dwarfing over the 6-year, $96 million deal handed to Adrian Beltre in 2011, the 6-year, $111 million contract given to Yu Darvish in 2012*, and, in terms of Average Annual Value (AAV), steeper than the 10-year, $130 million accepted by Elvis Andrus last season.

* This includes the $51-plus million posting fee it took to get the exclusive negotiating rights for Darvish.

Choo, about to enter his age-32 season, is coming off perhaps his best offensive campaign to date, batting .285/.423/.462 (151 wRC+) in 154 games with the Reds last season. The +5.2 fWAR he produced is the 2nd-highest figure of his career and, since 2009, has generated the 9th-most Wins Above Replacement for full-time outfielders (+19.7) in the majors. It stands to reason he will be inserted to be the Rangers leadoff hitter in 2014, joining a lineup that should vaguely resemble this:

1. Shin-Soo Choo – LF

2. Elvis Andrus – SS

3. Prince Fielder – 1B

4. Adrian Beltre – 3B

5. Alex Rios – RF

6. Mitch Moreland – DH

7. Geovany Soto – C

8. Jurickson Profar – 2B

9. Leonys Martin – CF

Choo’s greatest weapon is his plate discipline, and ability to get on base. He is known as an adequate defensive outfielder with an average- to above-average throwing arm, and is capable of stealing his fair share of bases. Not counting 2011 — where he only played in 85 games — Choo has stolen at least 20 bases in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013; his aggressive approach on the base-paths should mesh nicely with players like Andrus, Martin and Rios, giving manager Ron Washington a lineup with an efficient complement of power and speed, something it lacked in an underwhelming 2013 season.

Though, at 7 years and $130 million, the Rangers are not getting out of this without their fair share of risk. Texas will be paying Shin-Soo through 2020 — his age-38 season — and by that time his skill set will very likely have eroded to the point where he is little more than a single’s hitter who possesses the ability to get on base. Imperative is a strong word, so I’m not going to say it’s imperative, but, like most long-term contracts given to players on the wrong side of 30, it’s necessary for the Rangers to extract the bulk of Choo’s value in the first 3-4 years of the deal.

If we divide $130 million by the 7-year term, then Choo is set to earn roughly $18.6 million AAV; if we take that number and divide it by the value of each win — which, depending on what you fancy, is anywhere between $5 million and $7 million, but let’s split the difference and call it an even $6 million — then Shin-Soo will need to generate about 3 wins per year to justify such a contract. Given inflation, and the value of the win only escalating from here, that 3-wins-per-year number will likely go down by the time 2015 arrives, but for the sake of breaking down the contract as it stands at this exact moment, this is the general figure to keep in mind.

I can keep spewing data till I’m blue in the face, but the Choo signing is significant, too, in the ripple effects it creates:

  • For starters, the likelihood that Japanese starter Maisuhera Tanaka gets posted diminishes; if he was the Rangers #1 target this offseason, there’s a good chance they would have waited out engaging the Choo talks until the Tanaka situation was resolved. If, as has been reported, Tanaka will not be posted, Jon Daniels probably wanted to lock down Shin-Soo Choo before their competition got a few more bidders.
  • Next, Michael Choice. When JD essentially traded Craig Gentry for Choice, the thought was that he was going to be the everyday left fielder in 2014. With Choo in the fold, Daniels has the flexibility to start Michael Choice in Triple-A to begin the year, or platoon him at DH with Mitch Moreland — which I don’t think will happen, for service time purposes — or, if the Rangers feel Choice is ready at some point in 2014, they can flip Alex Rios at the trade deadline.
  • Finally, the farm system. With Choo under contract, it means two-thirds of the starting outfield is under team control for at least the next 4 years, and by that time names like Lewis Brinson, Nick Williams, Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Ronald Guzman could be ready to join the big club. As far as prospects go, the chance all five of those players one day reach the major leagues is minimal, but when you look at how bleak the upper levels of the Rangers’ farm system is, signing Choo at the very least means Jon Daniels will not have any immediate obligation to use those players as trade chips. Like the two bullets points above, the Choo signing takes pressure off the front office by keeping their options opened. They weren’t only buying Choo, they were buying time in other areas as well.

If it was me, I wouldn’t have offered Shin-Soo Choo more than five years. I don’t think his particular skill set will age that well, which is really to say I don’t think most guys who are past age-30 will age well. It’s just a historical fact that production declines the older players get.

However, the free agent market seemingly gets more and more ridiculous as the years go by, and the price teams have to pay for championship-level pieces naturally increases to the standard of their needs. Before Choo was signed, the Rangers were probably right at the brink of being an 89 or 90-win team, which is typically enough to earn a playoff spot. By adding Choo, the Rangers eliminated the only glaring weakness in their lineup — left field — by exchanging a replaceable platoon with what could (or should) be a 4- to 5-win player, making them the clear-cut favorites to win the American League West in 2014, as well as one of the frontrunners to be the best team in the AL.

Furthermore, it depresses the need to force a major league job on Michael Choice — who may or may not be ready for one — but also makes Alex Rios expendable in what should be an excessively thin market for bats come trade deadline time. $130 million sounds like a fortune for a player who isn’t considered a superstar, but for where the Rangers are right now on the win curve, and where they hope to be both next October and in years beyond, today’s signing fortifies Texas as a juggernaut that isn’t anywhere close to rescinding the title.

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