If you're a Major League Baseball general manager with about, oh, $100 million or so lying around this offseason to hand out to a free agent who can help your club next year and beyond, may we suggest you consider giving it to Shin-Soo Choo?
In free agency, it's a given that players, particularly the most sought-after ones, are going to get overpaid. That's just what happens when demand overruns supply. But if a GM is going to spend a ton to sign a top talent for the long haul, it helps to at least pick the player who's most likely to come close to living up to the contract.
Among the handful of big names poised to land something in the nine-figure range who are currently free agents—a list that includes second baseman Robinson Cano, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and perhaps pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana—Choo should be the choice for GMs looking to go all in.
Awarding a five- or six-year deal to a player who's already 31, like Choo, isn't ideal. If the contract gets pushed to six years, that means the acquiring team will be getting Choo's age-31 through age-36 seasons, with Choo turning 37 in July of that final year.
That's at least a year or two beyond the point where Choo seems likely to be an impact, everyday starting player, but given his skill set—which we'll get to shortly—he's capable of remaining a useful, if expensive piece just about all the way through.
This is the primary reason why Choo is the pick over Cano, who is seeking a 10-year deal and probably will wind up getting at least seven or eight. That's going to require paying him $20 million-plus per season for whatever remains of his career at that point.
Plus, most players don't even reach free agency these days until they've hit the big 3-0, so it's not like there's an abundance of 27-year-old's from which to choose. We have to work with what we've got.
Get in Position
With apologies to the likes of Jimenez and Santana or any other arm seeking top-of-the-line money this winter, it's just too risky to invest that much money or that many years in a pitcher.
In general, hurlers carry a bigger injury concern and are more volatile performers year-to-year than position players. Plus, they impact only about one-third of the games a hitter does. That's just too much downside.
On-Base Skills to Pay the Bills
Here's where Choo deserves your attention, Mr. GM-with-$100-Mill-to-Burn.
First off, he's an on-base machine, as his .389 career OBP proves. In fact, that ranks in the top 10 in the sport among active players since 2005, Choo's first year. And that number would be even higher if not for an injury-riddled 2011, when Choo played in only 85 games and hit just .259/.344/.390.
On-base ability is the kind of skill that doesn't tend to erode over time like, say, speed or defense or agility. So Choo's a good bet to post elite OBPs in the .370-.400 range for multiple years, and even at the tail end, he should be capable of something close to .350, which is still well above average.
A Leading Man...
Relatedly, Choo also makes for a great fit as a leadoff hitter, which he showed last year when he scored 107 runs—third most in baseball—as the table-setter for the Cincinnati Reds. There's always a huge demand for batters who can hit atop a lineup, so that won't be going away anytime soon. Just ask Ellsbury.
...with a Diverse Portfolio
Choo, though, doesn't have to be the first guy to step to the plate on his club, because he does a little of everything, including hit for power and steal bases. To wit, he's now posted three 20-homer, 20-steal campaigns in his five seasons since becoming a regular (and again, one of those was essentially a half-season due to injuries).
The point here is that Choo's pop-speed combo makes it more likely that, even if he starts declining in one aspect, he'll be able to maintain the other to stay productive. All the eggs aren't in one basket.
That's why Choo gets the edge over Ellsbury, whose value is tied much more to his speed and legs, which can drop off gradually or rapidly at his age (30 years old).
Left Is Right
Another benefit Choo brings? He's a lefty hitter, which is helpful because the majority of pitchers in baseball are right-handers—of the 65,841 total batters faced in 2013, 47,038 were by right-handers (more than 71 percent)—meaning Choo will have the platoon advantage more often than not.
While on this topic, we can't ignore the fact that a lot has been made of Choo's increasing struggles against same-sided pitchers. For instance, he hit just .215/.347/.265 against them in 2013 and is at .243/.340/.341 for his career.
This is a legitimate concern going forward, and it could eventually lead to Choo turning into a pricey platoon player at some point. Still, given his ability to do serious damage against righties—.309/.411/.521 career!—and the fact that he plays a position that is an easy fit for a platoon, it wouldn't be too difficult to pair him with a fellow outfielder who hits from the right side and does his best work against southpaws.
Lastly, let's touch on Choo's defense. While admittedly miscast as a center fielder in 2013, that was entirely because the Reds' roster construction left them sans a true option at that spot, so Choo got the gig.
Although he wasn't good in center, Choo has been a quality defensive corner outfielder in the past, albeit one who is clearly in decline. Still, Choo should be fine enough once shifted back to his more familiar right field. He also possesses a strong arm, which, again, is the type of trait that usually sticks around for the long haul.
A Cautious Comparison
Something about Choo and his all-around skill set reminds one of Bobby Abreu, which is certainly not a bad thing.
After all, although the freshest memories of Abreu from his time with the two Los Angeles teams in the final few years of his career aren't the most flattering, he was an underrated star-caliber corner outfielder who could do it all in his prime.
Abreu, let's not forget, managed to hang on for 17 seasons, and even at the end, when he was reduced to a platoon corner outfielder/designated hitter with the Angels and Dodgers, he still got on base at a good clip (.364 OBP from ages 35 through 38) and was a savvy enough baserunner to swipe 20 bases a year on average over his final four. Seriously.
To be clear: As a player who posted consistent five- and six-win seasons, Abreu was better in his 20s than Choo was. Abreu also was extremely productive during the early part of his 30s, when he was a 2.5-to-3.5-win player from ages 31 to 35 (by both Baseball Reference's and FanGraphs' measures of WAR).
Those are the ages Choo will play the next five seasons, meaning he has a chance to follow the Abreu path (i.e. a consistently underappreciated, lefty-swinging, near-star corner outfielder with defensive shortcomings but a strong arm whose offensive production holds up rather well over the second half of his career, particularly at the dawn of it).
If Choo can approximate that model, he might not be the flashiest among baseball's new batch of $100 million men. He just might, though, come close to being worth it.
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