Shin-Soo Choo, and the seven-year itch.
Arguably, the lineup was missing one more big bat.
The defense was missing one regular.
The attack was missing one dimension.
The winter was missing that one last splash.
And then, days after the General Manager told reporters he didn’t expect to make any more major acquisitions, he did exactly that, reminding us to never count Texas out as long as this ownership group and front office team are in charge of this thing, to pay close attention to verb choice, and to recognize that, while the biggest flag doesn’t yet fly in Arlington, these continue unquestionably to be the Good Old Days for Texas Rangers fans.
Shin-Soo Choo at seven years, seven very expensive years, makes the Rangers significantly stronger on paper going into 2014. That doesn’t speak to 2018 or 2019 or 2020 — and paper strength doesn’t really mean a whole lot for 2014 itself — but we all ended the 2013 season knowing there were several roster itches that needed scratching, and with one move, one very big and possibly scary move, the Rangers are taking the chance that a player not necessarily thought of on a superstar level can make an impact-level difference for this club, for at least half the term of the lengthy commitment.
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The Rangers are one of the best teams in the AL, and Choo will push them toward the World Series the next few years. Flags fly forever and Choo could still surprise and excel for his entire contract, but history has an annoying way of getting the last word.
— Dan Szymborski, ESPN
Between the [Ellsbury], Choo & Cano deals, I think [the Choo/Texas] contract will look [the] best in five years. On-base tool will still play. Good for [the] Rangers.
— Gabe Kapler, Fox Sports 1
[T]here’s justification for overspending some of the revenue from a massive new local television contract in an attempt to keep the team in the pennant chase over the next few seasons despite the potential damage to the bottom line in the few seasons after that.
— Cliff Corcoran, Sports Illustrated
Szymborski published those thoughts on Monday.
Kapler tweeted his on Saturday.
Corcoran wrote his almost three years ago – when the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre.
He’s not a superstar, they said of Beltre. He’s a winning player, a tremendous talent, but isn’t going to carry a very good team. In fact, he hasn’t been on many very good teams.
All the same things can be, and have been, said about Choo. Did he land 7/130 only because he was among the best options in a relatively weak free agent lot, like Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth in 2011? Maybe. Was it because, right now, he fits what Texas needs perfectly and therefore you bite the bullet and pay a bit of a premium? Possibly.
But do years 5, 6, and 7 have to be as productive as the four before them for Choo to be “worth it”?
If Beltre has a disappointing 2014 and 2015 and fails to lock in his 2016 salary, was the five-year, $80 million guarantee Texas gave him three winters ago worth it?
Take a look at 30-year-old Hunter Pence’s career. And then the 31-year-old Choo’s career. In September the Giants guaranteed Pence the next five years at $18 million per. You want to trade Choo’s seven years at $18.6 million per, right now, for Pence?
On the one hand, you might decide that, free agency has become an exercise in giving the best players at least one more year than he should get, if you want them. (Especially looking ahead at what will be a really weak free agent hitter class next winter.)
On the other, maybe — as it’s basically always been — today’s bad contract agreement will become tomorrow’s norm. With the territory that TV money is heading into, maybe this is just where Shin-Soo Choo contracts and Hunter Pence contracts and Scott Feldman contracts are going. The entire salary scale is changing, and there are economic reasons that it should be.
Beltre’s contract seems like a bargain now. Nobody viewed it that way in January 2011.
And here’s the other thing, the point about this seven-year commitment that eventually got me hoping Texas would land Choo as other rumored suitors started to turn to other players the last few weeks: The idea of the untradeable contract is fading fast. There’s money to spend in the game, with more and more teams coming into those extra piles of cash, and one team’s albatross deal can turn out to be another team’s buy-low opportunity. Alex Rodriguez’s contract was traded, as was Crawford’s, and Adrian Gonzalez’s and Prince Fielder’s and Vernon Wells’s — and they all had some level of no-trade protection (as Choo reportedly does) presumably making things even tougher. Sometimes you have to chase the player with an injection of cash, but in many teams’ cases that’s becoming a bit easier to do.
You can find spots for them to go to — especially when you’re heading into a TV deal that will enable you to kick in a cash subsidy if needed. More than ever, there’s evidence that no contract is irreversibly crippling.
Which is certainly not to suggest that it’s inevitable that Choo will head into the back half of his contract as a player Texas would be better off without. I’m guessing some of the writers decrying the length of Choo’s deal — and there are lots of them — threw up red flags about the five-year Beltre deal as well, and there’s at least some chance they will have been wrong about both.
We’re now in a day and age in which you often have to guarantee more years than you’d like in order to get your guy, effectively committing really crazy money to buy what you expect to be the player’s best years early on in the deal and amortizing the rest while he’s still around.
And if those early years are crazy-great, not just for the player but also for the team whose attack he helped elevate, maybe helping to elevate a flag or two in the process, then the price of that year or two on the back end you weren’t crazy about paying will have been worth every single million.
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Rangers GM Jon Daniels expects payroll for 2014 to be similar to 2013, but maybe a little lower.
— Anthony Andro, Fox Sports Southwest
Daniels said that on October 3.
Forty-eight days later: Fielder.
Thirty-one days after that: Choo.
There’s that verb choice again.
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Heard NYY/Choo agreed at 7/140. Then [Scott] Boras asked to make it $143, $1 million over Carl Crawford. Angered NYY, [who] agreed with [Carlos] Beltran instead.
— C.J. Nitkowski, MLB Network Radio
Source says [the] Rangers were Choo’s 1st choice, [and he] didn’t want to move fast with [the] Yankees without knowing what [Texas] would do.
— Joel Sherman, New York Post
[I]f the money was anywhere close, I’d have chosen [the] Rangers over Yankees too, based on which organization has a plan and some pitching.
— Jay Jaffe, Sports Illustrated
Yeah, but what about #behooves?
Whether or not you believe Choo preferred Texas all along, he wouldn’t have taken 70 cents on the Yankee dollar to play in Arlington. The Rangers had to be prepared to play ball in that financial stratosphere to compete for Choo and ultimately land him, and that preparation starts with the TV contract that the Rangers negotiated three years and three months ago. Thanks for that, Chuck Greenberg and Ray and Bob and whoever else was instrumental in those negotiations, and to Fox, and to Ray and Bob and Neil and the whole ownership group that greenlighted the recommendation Daniels made this winter to spike the payroll that he “expected” would recede from last season in order to go big on Choo, and to offer the type of package designed to persuade the veteran to tell New York no.
You just can’t underestimate how huge that ability to pay — and the willingness to then capitally invest, aggressively, which doesn’t always follow automatically — is for this organization. Armed with tremendous depth in minor league talent assets, this winter Texas has acquired Fielder and Choo and J.P. Arencibia and Michael Choice, and retained Geovany Soto, Jason Frasor, and Colby Lewis, and who is the one minor leaguer the club has parted with in recharging its roster?
Journeyman Josh Lindblom, age 26.
(Yes, the Rangers surrender their 2014 first-round draft pick for signing Choo, but they’ll get the supplemental first-rounder they would have lost the right to if they’d signed Nelson Cruz instead. And let’s face it: Texas needed another bat at that level, and to trade for one on that tier or better would have cost far more in prospect value than one draft pick.)
All that minor league ammunition remains for whatever opportunities might be available next.
Jonah Keri (Grantland) wrote that as with “Robinson Cano’s 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners, Choo’s terms will probably end up looking like an overpay when we examine his total production over the life of the deal. But as with Cano, we need to rethink what constitutes a good or bad value . . . in fact, we need to rethink the whole concept of value. A good deal for the Pittsburgh Pirates isn’t the same as a good deal for the Texas Rangers.”
The Pirates aren’t even halfway through a 10-year local TV contract that pays them about $18 million per year. The Rangers are a year away from the start of a 20-year deal with Fox Sports Southwest that will pay somewhere between $75 million and $150 million per year, depending on the source. According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, they’re deferring $5 million of Choo’s 2014 salary to 2016-17, because they can.
The very good Pirates would need to dip into some of that Polanco-Taillon-Glasnow-Kingham wealth to add a bat of Choo’s stature, because they can’t afford to pay enough in cash to go to war with the Yankees.
And Texas — because it can pay — and overpay — can afford to add bats like Choo and Fielder without touching Profar or Perez, or Rougned or Jorge or Chi-Chi, or Gallo or Sardinas or Williams, or Brinson or Guzman, or Luke or Nomar.
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[T]he Rangers have acted quickly this winter to tend to business as far as their American League future goes, to start taking advantage of every opportunity they can to help their chances to win going forward. That’s the part that has me fired up about Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder and $30 million, a deal that reportedly came together in the span of about 24 hours.
And about whatever’s next, because Texas isn’t done.
— Newberg Report, November 21, 2013
I don’t expect any more substantial, big moves. That’s not to say we aren’t looking at some things, but I don’t expect any more major moves.
— Jon Daniels, December 12, 2013
[The] Rangers played [the] market perfectly, to [the] point that Choo or Cruz almost had to land there.
— Jon Morosi, Fox Sports, December 21, 2013
Based on the emails and tweets I was getting, and some of the questions at the Paranoid Fan event a week ago, it was apparent that lots of Rangers fans, having gotten a taste of late-October baseball followed by two disappointing 90-win seasons and the loss of players like Hamilton and Mike Napoli and possibly Cruz, were frustrated with the off-season, even though we weren’t even past mid-December. History would have preached a bit more patience.
The day that news broke of the Choo signing, the shortest day of the year, was the six-year anniversary of the trade for Josh Hamilton.
In 2010, Texas didn’t acquired Beltre and Napoli until January.
In 2011, Texas learned on December 19 that it won the right to negotiate with Yu Darvish. The Rangers signed him in mid-January.
The headlines aren’t always made at the Winter Meetings.
But there’s usually groundwork being laid then, if not before.
According to Rosenthal and others, Daniels and Thad Levine and Ron Washington flew to California before the Winter Meetings to visit with Choo and Boras. But, Rosenthal reports, the Rangers didn’t offer Choo seven years until after the Winter Meetings.
Did the early winter commitment to Soto as a potential starter behind the plate fire you up? Did the signing of the underachieving Arencibia to back him up make sense?
Maybe it does now, given what the next step in the plan was.
The tactic is subject to change each year. The Rangers signed Beltre and traded for Napoli as January fallbacks, reportedly, once they determined they were out on Cliff Lee. The next off-season, they signed Joe Nathan less than three weeks after the World Series ended, wanting to beat the market and send a quick message to Neftali Feliz about the role they planned for him. The winter after that, they were labeled the team that would dictate how the Winter Meetings would go, but Plan A and Plan B and maybe Plan C fell short and instead it was the winter of A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman.
This winter has been more methodical — and successful — as early moves paved the way for impact moves in November and December.
Maybe they’re done.
Maybe they’re not.
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Since he became a regular in 2008, there have only been nine qualified players who have posted a better OBP than has Choo, and three of them — Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones — are either retired or semi-retired. Of the other six, only one is an outfielder — Mike Trout. Put another way, the only outfielder in the past six years to get on base at a better rate than Choo is the best player in baseball. That’s nothing at which you should shake a stick.
— Paul Swydan, FanGraphs
The Rangers, in their 42 seasons, have had three players reach base at a greater rate for an entire year than Choo’s .423 on-base for the Reds in 2013: one in the 1980’s (Toby Harrah, .432, 1985), one in the 1990’s (Will Clark, .431, strike-shortened 1994), and one in the 2000’s (Milton Bradley, .436, 2008).
Not a burner on the base paths, Choo may not profile as the prototype leadoff hitter, but in many years neither did Kinsler. Choo’s elite base-reaching ability, however, a tremendous separator between the two, stands to create more early pressure on the opponent, especially if Elvis Andrus can build off his second half in 2013. Choo has hit for a higher average than Kinsler lifetime (.288 to .273) and, though he has never hit 23 home runs (Kinsler has done it four times), he’s outslugged Kinsler over his career (.465 to .454). He averages 20 steals (in 27 tries) for every 162 games (compared to 26 of 32 for Kinsler).
But the real difference is in the key leadoff stat, the frequency of getting on base. Choo has a career .389 on-base percentage, Kinsler .349. Since 2008, the only active players with a higher OBP than Choo are Joey Votto, Joe Mauer, Miguel Cabrera, and Albert Pujols.
Last year, the two best on-base percentages in baseball against right-handed pitchers were Votto (.464) and Choo (.457). Think about that: against righties, Choo reached based nearly half the time, for an entire year.
In raw number of times on base, only Trout and Cabrera have outperformed Choo the last two seasons. Right after Choo is Fielder, and then Andrew McCutchen and Votto.
Stated another way, the two best players in the American League are the only players to reach base more often than Choo and Fielder the last two years. And the two best players in the National League (at least arguably) reach base a whole lot, too — but not as often as Choo and Fielder.
While we’re talking about Choo and Fielder, consider this:
In 2013, Texas leadoff hitters posted a collective slash line of .266/.336/.386.
Compare Choo’s 2013 (.285/.423/.462), or his career slash (.288/.389/.465).
Number two hitters slashed .258/.311/.340 for the Rangers last year.
Andrus, batting second, was mildly better than that on his own (.278/.329/.348), but he had such a good second half (.313/.369/.405) after his slow start that there’s at least reasonable hope that, in his age 25 season, he can extend that stretch of production.
Ranger three-hole hitters hit .262/.327/.398 in 2013.
Fielder hit .279/.362/.457 last year — in what was without question his worst season in the big leagues. His career slash is .286/.389/.527.
The first inning could be fun again. (And, as Boras bullet-pointed, according to Peter Gammons: Texas had a .780 win percentage when scoring first last year. Not sure how that compares with league average, but it’s cool to think about.)
Merry Christmas, Adrian Beltre.
While we’re talking about Choo and Andrus and Fielder and Beltre:
Merry Christmas, Scott Boras.
Think back to July 31, 2007, when the Rangers traded Mark Teixeira. The idea that the Ranger offense, six years later, would be anchored by four Boras clients at the top, playing under contracts worth $558 million, sort of blows the mind.
(And you can bet Boras is not done trying to convince Texas that his client Kendrys Morales would fit nicely at DH — at number five in the order.)
Among National League hitters, only Jayson Werth (4.24) saw more pitches per plate appearance in 2013 than Choo (4.23). He was eighth in that category overall, but none of the seven hitters ahead of him (Napoli, Adam Dunn, Carlos Santana, Mauer, Werth, Jose Bautista, or Brett Gardner) was particularly close to Choo’s 263 total bases.
Three Rangers have ever had a season seeing more pitches per trip than Choo saw last year: Jose Canseco in 1994 (4.45), Mickey Tettleton in 1996 (4.38), and Tettleton in 1995 (4.34). Choo’s career mark of 4.03 trails Rusty Greer’s 4.03, the best lifetime number for a Ranger, by milli-fractions.
Here’s a sickening set of numbers: After pitchers got to two strikes on Choo in 2013, his on-base percentage was .348. After two strikes.
Choo (.348) reached base with greater frequency after two strikes than Kinsler (.344) did all year long.
In fact, the only Rangers hitter who reached base more frequently in 2013, regardless of count, than Choo did with two strikes was Beltre (.371).
Choo drew 112 walks in 2013, more than any Ranger other than Harrah (113 in 1985) ever has. In fact, the most a Rangers hitter has walked in a season since Rafael Palmeiro’s 104 free passes in 2002 was Kinsler’s 89 in 2011.
The walks, plus the unusual tendency (at least in 2013) to get drilled, fueled a crazy park-adjusted Choo OPS (OPS+) of 143 — which was still only the third-highest OPS+ season of his career. In fact, Choo’s OPS+ over his nine-year career is 134. Kinsler has had only one season at that same level.
And here’s another Choo/Kinsler note, which if nothing else may have some aesthetic value: According to FanGraphs, Choo has popped up on the infield six times in the last three seasons combined (compare that with 249 line drives). That includes one pop-up in 2013.
Kinsler? Over the last three years, 90 infield pop-ups.
(Granted, Choo will strike out a lot more than Kinsler, and an out’s an out. But there you go.)
The idea of adding Choo’s elite approach to the lineup goes well beyond his impact at leadoff (if that’s where he hits). The thought that the plate discipline and the tough, grinding at-bats that he and Fielder bring might rub off on Andrus and Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin — for years . . . .
Oh, man, that fires me up.
Especially when I think about the late innings, if things do start to really come together for the two younger players, and opposing bullpens are faced with the task of seeing Profar and then Martin and then Choo and then Andrus, before getting to the big bats.
Choo is such a good fit here, at least for now.
Another Swydan comment to close out this section, if you don’t mind: “FanGraphs has Choo as having been worth more than $20 million in three of the past five seasons, and those estimates may be conservative. Having so many big contracts on the books for so long isn’t great, but if there is one skill I’m willing to bet on experiencing a slower decline, it’s OBP, and Choo and Fielder have that in spades.”
Such a good fit.
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If you wish Choo were better against lefties, you’d just be wishing he were better, and everyone wants every player on their team to be better. Choo is what he is, and he’s good, and he happens to just pile up his biggest offensive contributions when there are righties on the mound. Righties throw a lot more innings than lefties do.
— Jeff Sullivan, FanGraphs
Here’s a fascinating note from Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Info: On June 24, 2011, the Indians fell to the Giants, 4-3, a game in which San Francisco starter Jonathan Sanchez wasn’t very sharp. The lefthander held Cleveland to just two hits over 4.2 innings, but he walked six batters and drilled another, Indians number five hitter Shin-Soo Choo, with a 2-1 fastball up and in. It broke Choo’s thumb, and cost him seven weeks.
From 2008 (Choo’s first relatively full season in the big leagues) through that trip to the plate against Sanchez, according to Havens, Choo hit .266/.346/.383 against left-handed pitching.
Since then, he’s a .217/.337/.296 hitter against southpaws.
Meanwhile, his overall numbers, against all pitching (.293/.388/.477 before, .286/.399/.457 since), haven’t changed all that much, indicating that he’s gotten significantly better against right-handed pitchers, to counterbalance the dip against lefties.
But he still finds a way to reach base with lefthanders on the mound. In 2011 (the year that was interrupted by the Sanchez plunking), Choo hit .269 against lefties and reached base at a .336 clip. Last year, he hit only .215 against same-siding pitching — but had a .347 OBP.
Yes: Choo’s brutal showing against lefthanders in 2013 nonetheless included a higher on-base percentage (.347) than Kinsler put up against all pitching (.344).
That’s not to overlook that Choo is a much different hitter against lefties. Still, quick question: Who are C.J. Wilson, Scott Kazmir, James Paxton, Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs, Dallas Keuchel, and Brett Oberholtzer?
Those are all the lefthanders projected at this point to pitch in the 20 AL West rotations slots outside of Arlington.
Think on that a bit.
As Sullivan puts it, “Choo’s going to help the Rangers score a lot more runs, and for every big plate appearance he gets against a lefty, there’ll be two or three he gets against righties. He’s really very good, against righties.”
Keri notes that, sabermetrically, only Chris Davis and David Ortiz were better against righthanders in 2013. Expand the inquiry to 2009 through 2013, and only Votto, Cabrera, and Fielder have been better than Choo.
The Cubs signed Jonathan Sanchez to a minor league contract last week. They apparently plan to look at him as a reliever. The only time the Rangers are set to face the Cubs in 2014 is in a split-squad exhibition game on Tuesday night, March 18, in Surprise. Maybe Choo will travel to Maryvale for that afternoon’s game against the Brewers instead.
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[H]ere’s the guarantee the Rangers are getting, and it’s one they’ve no doubt researched in recent weeks: Nobody will outwork Shin-Soo Choo. Nobody will out-hustle Shin-Soo Choo. Nobody will approach the goal of winning a World Series more passionately, more genuinely.
— Anthony Castrovince, MLB.com
Nobody ever questioned Adrian Beltre’s or Mike Napoli’s or Joe Nathan’s motor, but none of them had won a ring or had much of any post-season success at all, and that story line came up when Texas acquired each of them. The hungry Rangers like hungry players.
— Newberg Report, August 10, 2013
That last quote was part of my writeup after the trade for Alex Rios. The hypothesis was that Rios, who was dogged by a reputation of not playing hard in Chicago, but whose career year came in the one season his team was in contention, might thrive in the pennant race Texas was thrusting him into.
Choo has had one big league playoff game in his nine seasons. That was three months ago, when his Reds lost to the Pirates.
(Incidentally, not to cross-pollinate, but in that game he homered off lefty reliever Tony Watson, who has surrendered only four home runs to left-handed hitters in his three big league seasons, spanning 288 plate appearances.)
Castrovince was on the Indians beat from 2006 through 2010, all of which were Choo seasons in Cleveland. His assessment of Choo, and the homework the Rangers undoubtedly did on the player, are good enough for me.
And for those of you brandishing the fact that the 31-year-old Choo has never made an All-Star Team, I offer this in response:
Beltre, in the 13 big league seasons he’d played before signing with Texas, had been an All-Star only once. In the age 31 season he’d just completed with Boston.
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Jon Daniels has put a lineup together that is good enough to go all the way.
— Jim Bowden, ESPN/XM
Oh, and great signing. Exactly what Rangers needed.
— Joe Sheehan, The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
While they’re not really the same, the Choo and Fielder acquisitions remind me a bit of that week in 1988 that was one of my favorite in Rangers history — that three-day stretch when Tom Grieve traded for Palmeiro and traded for Julio Franco and signed Nolan Ryan. The Palmeiro and Franco adds were a huge step toward revamping an all-or-nothing Texas offense, and maybe we’re about to see a similar facelift with Choo and Fielder.
Choo and Fielder and Matt Harrison, added to a club that won 90 games for a fourth straight season. Choice and Arencibia and Lewis added on the fringes. Profar replacing Kinsler, which for now will probably be a bit of a downgrade — but maybe not.
And not so much as a dent in the prospect war chest.
Four lefties in the lineup (Choo, Fielder, Mitch Moreland, Martin), four righties (Andrus, Beltre, Rios, the catcher), one switch-hitter (Profar).
The Rangers could have spent more on Ellsbury than they did on Choo. But I’ll take Choo’s durability and base-reaching and arm.
They could have signed Cruz instead of Choo. I’ll take the better baseball player, and the younger one.
They could have traded for Matt Kemp or Bautista or Santana or Gardner. I’ll keep the prospects.
With Choo, you can be more patient with Choice, and with Nick Williams. You have less urgency, and more flexibility, when it comes to what to do about Rios’s $13.5 million option for 2015. You have the added dimension of plugging Profar and Martin in at the bottom of the lineup, if you’d like, and that could be huge.
I’m not suggesting the Rangers will be able to use (or interested in using) cash to wallpaper their mistakes (also known in Yankees lexicon as “Whitsoning,” or “Tartabulling”). There are going to be concerns that Texas is committing too much money to Choo, and too many years.
But the landscape in baseball is changing, and given how many clubs are coming into far more money than they used to operate with, we’re at a point in the game where the carefully measured overpay is part of the arsenal. Texas always has a Plan B and a Plan C, but as we saw last winter, sometimes those fallbacks fit the fiscal restraint model yet don’t amount to enough baseball games won.
In hindsight, I’m eventually going to be OK as a Rangers fan with 2012 and 2013 in the large scheme of things, because four straight years of 90 wins and of 162+ is not something to be taken for granted, given how hard it is to win in this sport.
But that’s not to say there’s not that ache — that relentless itch — to get back to that final doorstep this team was on in 2010 and especially 2011, and to blow the door down this time. We’re all as hungry as Shin-Soo Choo and Adrian Beltre and JD and Ray and Bob to get there, and with the window still very much open, and this franchise well positioned to keep it that way for most if not all of these next seven years, I’m having a difficult time losing any sleep over the fact that a winning baseball player like Choo is going to be around to help his team grind things out and walk right through that door behind which the biggest flag rests.