2014 Free Agent Preview: Shin-Soo Choo

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Shin-Soo Choo made the most of his walk season and he has a great deal to offer to a competitive team, but his age and skill set might limit his big payday some.

Shin-Soo Choo is heading into the free agent market coming off an incredible performance in 2013. Choo was traded to the Reds in the three-team deal that sent Didi Gregorius to the Diamondbacks and Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs to the Indians last off-season. He rewarded Cincinnati with a career year, hitting .285/.423/.462 and scoring 107 runs, thanks in large part to the game’s second highest walk rate. The Reds made the controversial decision to play him in center and while he was well-below average defensively, he did not embarrass himself or the club with his glove work there, adding more positional flexibility to his free agent case than might have previously been imagined.

Even before the Giants resigned Hunter Pence, Choo would have ranked a few steps behind Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the free agent market. will certainly extend a qualifying offer his way, adding draft pick compensation to his cost, but even with that added expense, he could be the best value of the off-season. Few teams will try him in center field the way the Reds did this season and moving back to a corner spot will likely help his overall value. His patience at the plate and his ability to avoid making outs are both extremely valuable and he has shown increasing power over the last three seasons as well. At 31-years-old Choo should still have one or two prime years left, making him an ideal target for a team looking to win now or in the near-future.

A strong argument could even be made that Choo should be the top free agent outfielder simply because he appears less risky than Ellsbury. 2013 was not a overly flukey season for Choo, the way Ellsbury’s 2011 season was. Choo has consistently shown excellent on-base skills, average-to-plus-power and a strong hit tool despite a somewhat high strikeout rate. However, even at a corner outfield position Choo has never been much of a defender by some measures, with a career UZR of -2.5 in RF and -16 in center. Defensive Runs Saved had him at -12 in RF in 2012 over his career and -18 in CF this season. His best skills (OBP, power, BABIP) are also more "old-player" skills, which often make a player more prone to an early decline. Considering those limitations, Choo offers a higher floor but alsohas a much lower ceiling than Ellsbury. Given that, teams are going to be more cautious about giving him a extra season on any deal.

Top Bidders

Mets

Even with ace Matt Harvey out for 2014, the Mets have Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, Jon Niese in the 2014 rotation and David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud on the positional side to give them the start of a competitive ballclub. With more pitching talent on the way, the Mets need to start building a winning club this off-season to pave the way for a run in 2015 or 2016. That process is almost certainly going to start with Shin-Soo Choo.

Choo has the type of patience that GM Sandy Alderson loves and his left-handed, OBP-heavy bat would be a perfect compliment to the righty-hitting David Wright at the heart of the lineup. The Mets tried eleven players in the outfield in 2013 and only human-statue Lucas Duda and Marlon Byrd managed to hit above league average. Juan Lagares’s defense can cover for Choo’s lack of range some and they desperately need his bat. Most importantly, signing Choo will send a message to other players and to fans, telling them the Mets are ready to start winning and they are willing to spend again to make that happen.

Reds

The Reds will have the advantage of not having to pay the qualifying offer compensation price for Choo and that might help make up for their relative lack of cash. However, Choo is a Boras client boasting eye-catching numbers and the Reds are still a very small market club. Their $106 million payroll this season is probably the most they can reasonably spend and they have $80 million committed to near year’s payroll before arbitration raises.

Even though they may have a hard time finding the money, the Reds are likely to stick around in the bidding for some time. Choo was a huge part of their 2013 offense and with key players like Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce signed to long term deals, they are looking to stay in the playoff picture for the near future. Prospect Billy Hamilton should upgrade their center field defense at some point, but they have no way to replace Choo’s offense if they let him walk away.

Phillies

The Phillies need a right fielder and Choo is easily the best option on the market. In 2013 they tried trading for center fielder Ben Revere and low-cost options like Delmon Young, Laynce Nix and Roger Bernadina and ended up with the least productive outfield in baseball despite Domonic Brown finally emerging as a solid everyday player. Their core is already past its prime so its win now or dismantle. There have been signs that the Phillies are going to start selling so landing a top player like Choo or Ellsbury for the outfield is basically a must.

Potential Dark Horse Bidders

Red Sox

The Red Sox have loved players like Choo for a long time now and if it wasn’t for their desire to keep Ellsbury around and some other viable options for their outfield, they would certainly be near the top of the bidders list. Boston is certainly more likely to spend on Ellsbury or just let him go and let either Jackie Bradley Jr or Shane Victorino man center. However, if Ellsbury walks, Boston could decide to move on Choo to play right. Victorino could then move back to center until Bradley proves he is ready, allowing Boston to be patient with the promising youngster. Choo would then be able to move to the very limited left field of Fenway when his defense declines even more. With his approach, he would be right at home in a lineup that already includes grinders like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.

Cubs

Some of the people who loved players like Choo in Boston now run the Cubs and Theo Esptein and Jed Hoyer could certainly target him this off-season. The Cubs have the money to land him with less than $40 million on the books for 2014 and their outfield was stripped bare by trades at the end of this season. However, the Cubs are still a few years away from the window to win and there is significant risk that Choo will be a shadow of himself by the time the Cubs farm system starts to pay off. For that reason Ellsbury makes more sense for them, but Choo would be a very reasonable Plan B for Chicago.

What will he get paid?

Scott Boras has never been shy about offering up a big number early in negotiations and he has already set the bar for Choo at $100 million dollars. Given his 2013 performance, that isn’t actually all that crazy but recent contract history makes such a deal extremely unlikely. Choo has been fairly healthy, playing 140+ games in four of the last five seasons and his offensive production has been elite in each of those seasson. However, his age is a big negative and his defensive shortcomings only add to that issue.

If Choo was a year or two younger and more widely recognized for his offensive abilities, it would not be hard to imagine Boras finding him that nine-figure deal, but offensively-effective, defensively-challenged hitters in their early-to-mid thirties are one of the more easily obtainable commodities on the market this season and most in seasons. Nick Swisher had to settle for a four-year/ $56 million when he hit free agency last season at age-31 despite numbers that are not far below Choo’s. Hunter Pence’s five-year/$90 million deal with the Giants is excellent news for Choo, since Pence has been a less effective hitter who also rates poorly in the defensive metrics. However, that deal looks like an overpay and Pence is almost a year younger that Choo. Matching that deal seems like the most likely scenario but I would not be surprised if teams hesitate on going five years and Choo has to settle for four-years and $78 million or so.

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