COMMENTARY | Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn must find someone to bat leadoff and play center field if they are going to be competitive in 2014 and beyond.
Since the farm system is not prepared to help out in either capacity for at least two more seasons, and Avisail Garcia is seemingly the only outfielder with any long-term upside, Hahn needs to sign Shin-Soo Choo to a free-agent contract. It is a signing that must be made, actually. There is simply no other choice right now.
Let's take a deeper look at why Choo makes so much sense for the White Sox:
In 2013, the leadoff hitters for the White Sox had a collective .259/.321/.388 slash line with 17 home runs, 29 doubles, a cumulative 1.7 oWAR, and 88 runs scored. Only the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros scored fewer runs from the No. 1 spot in the batting order. They were also 12th in total bases (259), RBIs (63), and triples (3) out of the 15 teams in the American League, according to ESPN.com. Worse yet, Alejandro De Aza was thrown out on the basepaths 18 times last season. All told, the first spot in the lineup left quite a bit to be desired.
Choo, on the other hand, has a .288/.389/.465 career slash line and averages 20 home runs, 81 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases per season. This past season, he hit .294 with a .138 IsoD (difference between on-base percentage and batting average), and had a 6.0 oWAR batting first. He does strikeout quite a bit (133 Ks in 2013), but more than makes up for it by drawing an average of 85 walks per season. From a purely statistical perspective, it is hard to make an argument that the White Sox are better off with De Aza batting leadoff.
In 279 chances playing center field, De Aza committed five errors and had only three assists, while Choo had 366 chances, committed four errors, and ended the season with eight assists. While Choo outperformed De Aza in every statistical category, that does not tell the whole story. De Aza was so poor in the field in 2013 that many of his biggest mistakes did not hit the stat sheet. He routinely misjudged line drives, misplayed balls through the infield, and failed to hit the cutoff man on multiple occasions.
Choo may not be as fleet of foot as De Aza is, but he is a headier defender who does not generally put his team in disadvantageous situations. With the dramatic decline in team defense in 2013, the White Sox would be wise to seek an upgrade in the field as well as at the plate -- and Choo does that.
Each of the offensive metrics that were mentioned earlier overlook one key statistical category. Choo has a real hard time hitting left-handed pitching. Last year, for instance, he hit a meager .215 with 44 strikeouts in only 181 at-bats, per Baseball-Reference.com. His career numbers against lefties -- .243/.340/.341 -- are a bit better, but it is no secret that he struggles against them. That could make late-inning matchups hard on manager Robin Ventura, but, overall, Choo's positives outweigh his negatives by a wide margin.
Why Choo, and not Curtis Granderson or Jacoby Ellsbury, for example?
Well, the White Sox do not need a career .261 hitter who averages 30 home runs and 159 strikeouts every year, like Granderson. He is phenomenal in the field, but the Sox need offense and defense. Ellsbury, on the other hand, is the total package. He has a lifetime .297/.350/.439 slash line, averages 55 stolen bases per season, and has compiled a .995 fielding percentage in seven seasons. Unfortunately, he will demand, at minimum, a five-year, $100 million contract. That figure will surely be too high for Hahn.
Now, if Hahn does not want to invest in Choo, he could bring in more reasonably priced options like James Loney, Michael Morse, or Corey Hart. That would be putting off a heavy investment in improving the offense until 2015. Given the lack of production from recent offseason acquisitions -- Jeff Keppinger and Adam Dunn, for example -- it would be an understandable choice.
As MLB.com's Scott Merkin noted, though, signing a short-term free agent would not "augment the core that Hahn hopes will help the White Sox fight for a World Series title year in and year out."
A move must be made, and Choo would be the best fit for the next four years on the South Side.
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