COMMENTARY | Shin-Soo Choo enters free agency this winter as a top-tier outfielder, and the 31-year-old South Korean will be driving hard for a hefty contract to carry him through the end of his prime playing days.
Choo developed into a potent bat for the Cleveland Indians, and he offers a unique combination of power and speed, giving him versatility in the batting order. Cleveland traded Choo when it failed to reach an extension, and he did a creditable job as the leadoff man for the Cincinnati Reds in 2013. After all, Choo's agent is Scott Boras, a contract-negotiating assassin that haunts the dreams of general managers.
The stats on the back of Choo's baseball card are impressive, and he seems to be a franchise-changing player at first glance, but his game is a lot like an onion -- the more you peel it, the more it stinks. The New York Yankees already have Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki, Vernon Wells and Brett Gardner signed to play three outfield positions in 2014.
Signing Choo would not only be a superfluous acquisition at a time when the Yankees are seeking to trim payroll, it would be a substantial monetary commitment for a player who struggles to hit lefties and offers pathetic defense despite his speedy legs.
The Good: Choo's Bat
Choo burst on the scene in 2008 and hit .309 in 317 at-bats with 14 home runs, 28 doubles and 66 RBIs for the Indians. The lefty batted exactly .300 the next two seasons and tallied at least 20 HRs, 85 RBIs and 20 steals both years. A thumb injury marred his 2011 campaign, but he bounced back in 2012 (.283, 16 HR, 67 RBIs, 21 SB).
Following a trade for Drew Stubbs and shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius, Choo launched 21 homers and scored 107 runs at the top of Cincinnati's batting order. The most impressive development was his improved batting eye as he drew 112 walks in 712 plate appearances, a marked increased from 2012's 77 walks in 686 PAs. Yet, through all those times on base, Choo did not increase his steals total. He swiped 20 bases but also got caught a career-high 11 times, suggesting he may have lost a step or his baserunning instincts deteriorated somewhere along the trip from Cleveland.
Even more worrisome, Choo has always struggled to hit left-handed pitching. In his career, he has batted .309 against righties and just .243 against lefties. In 2013, left-handers held him to a sorry .215 average. If the Yankees' front office is thinking Choo could launch a ton of homers over the short porch in right field, they should bear in mind that he does most of his damage against right-handed pitching. Only 13 of his 104 career home runs have come courtesy of lefties.
The Bad: Choo's Glove
Choo patrolled right field for Cleveland in 2012 and moved to center with Cincinnati in 2013. Defensive versatility can be a vital asset, but, according to FanGraphs, his UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced fielding metric) came in at minus-16.7 and minus-15.5, respectively, in those seasons.
A UZR of 15 is very good, zero is average; minus-15 is rotten, especially for an outfielder with speed. Looking to his DRS (defensive runs saved), Choo was just as bad with a minus-12 in 2012 and minus-17 in 2013. His dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) of minus-1.8 in 2013 ranked dead last among qualifying center fielders (via ESPN ). In 2012, only two qualifying right fielders posted a lower dWAR than Choo's minus-1.9.
Choo has an above-average throwing arm with below-average defensive instincts. Whether in right or in center field, he routinely fails to get a good read on the ball and takes poor routes, turning some singles into doubles. His surprisingly limited range is even more harmful in center field, essentially robbing him of any potential defensive dynamism. For a player with his speed and strong arm, Choo should be a marvel in the outfield, but he is in fact a defensive liability.
The Ugly: Negotiating with Scott Boras
The other problem is that Scott Boras is Choo's agent. He will seek to punish any and all interested suitors by jacking up his player's price using any means necessary. In 2011, the Washington Nationals gave Boras' client Jayson Werth a contract worth $126 million over seven years. According to a tweet from Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com, Boras will look to top that contract with Choo, even though the Werth deal was pretty obviously an ill-advised signing for the Nats.
In September, the San Francisco Giants gave Hunter Pence (not a Boras client) $90 million over the next five years. As tweeted by Mike Puma of the New York Post, " Boras is trying to push Choo as a $90 million player," because of course he is. In Puma's column in the Post, he quoted a "person with knowledge of the agent's discussions with teams" as saying, "I don't think the industry sees Choo as a $90 million player."
However, Boras has a habit of making people see things his way.
Between the comparisons to Werth and Pence, it seems clear that Boras is targeting at least five years for at least $18 million per year for Choo. That seems like way too much money for a poor fielder that can't hit lefties, and surely those millions could be better spent elsewhere. Another Boras client, Jacoby Ellsbury, is the real jewel in the crown of free agency after Robinson Cano. Other free agents are available who could be more attractive to teams looking for outfield help, including Carlos Beltran and Nelson Cruz, who would almost certainly command fewer years than Choo.
Then again, Ichiro, Wells and Gardner are all entering the final year of their deals, and the 2015 class of free-agent outfielders ( Melky Cabrera, Coco Crisp, Michael Cuddyer, Colby Rasmus, Jonny Gomes, Chase Headley, Emilio Bonifacio, et al. ) is considerably less promising than the current crop. Gardner figures to be a part of the Yankees' future, although it's important to remember he is already 30 years old despite his youthful enthusiasm.
The Yankees have more pressing needs to address with Cano and their starting rotation. They can afford to stand pat on an outfielder if they choose. Beltran seems like an unnecessary free agent to target, but at least he would be a short-term addition for perhaps two years. That would be greatly preferable to at least five expensive years of Choo's flawed play.
While Choo is a solid player who could be an asset for another team, he has too many drawbacks to justify the long-term expenditure for the luxury-tax-conscious Bronx Bombers.
Sean Hojnacki writes about baseball and football for Time Warner and basketball for Bleacher Report. His writing has also appeared on The Classical, Salon.com and briefly on Twitter. He lives in Jersey City, NJ with his wife and a cat named after Melky Cabrera.
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