Saturday morning, the Texas Rangers swooped in and signed outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, perhaps the best free agent still on the market at the time, to a seven-year deal worth $130 million. While the money may look to be a bit much at first glance, the deal figures to significantly improve the Rangers' playoff chances for 2014, and the contract may not be as unreasonable as it seems.
After losing Josh Hamilton to the division rival Angels last winter, the Rangers offense declined significantly in 2013, as the club's wRC+ ranked just 19th in baseball last season, while their team OBP was merely 14th. Choo will certainly help to boost those marks as his 112 walks and .423 OBP last season were 2nd best in the NL, and his 151 wRC+ was 9th in all of baseball.
With Alex Rios and Leonys Martin in right and center respectively, the Rangers were expected to run out someone along the lines of Engel Beltre or rookie Michael Choice in left before Choo's acquisition. Obviously he's a major upgrade, and his presence enables the Rangers to run out a lineup in 2014 that could look like this:
1. Choo, LF
2. Elvis Andrus, SS
3. Prince Fielder, 1B
4. Adrian Beltre, 3B
5. Alex Rios, RF
6. Mitch Moreland, DH
7. Geovany Soto, C
8. Jurickson Profar, 2B
9. Leonys Martin, CF
That lineup would easily be one of the best in the American League, and coupled with a pitching staff that features the likes of Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland among others, the Rangers should be one of the best teams in baseball next season.
According to WAR, Choo was a 5-win player last season, and that figure could've been higher if Cincinnati had not played him in center field, where his defense was downright atrocious. With Martin in Texas, Choo will return to a corner outfield role, where he isn't nearly as bad defensively as he is in center. Choo had a horrendous -17 defensive runs saved in 2013, but he had saved approximately 5 runs in the field prior to last season. Not great, but decent enough where his offensive value made him an extremely valuable commodity.
Contract-wise, the obvious comparison here is fellow 2013 free agent Jacoby Ellsbury who signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the New York Yankees earlier this month. Before the signing, the Yankees had shown interest in Choo as well, supposedly offering him a $140 million deal of the same length that was turned down by Choo's camp.
Both Ellsbury and Choo broke out in 2008, and since then, Choo has actually been worth approximately four wins more than Ellsbury. While Ellsbury has averaged a very solid 3.4 WAR average (4.8 per 650 plate appearances), Choo has been even better, averaging a 4.1 WAR (5.1 per 650 plate appearances) per season. Ellsbury has had the better peak, posting an 8.1 WAR in 2011 and a 5.8 WAR last season, but Choo has been the more consistent performer, having just one season with a WAR fewer than 3.4 since 2008, including three seasons of at least 4.5 WAR. Factoring in that Choo is just a year older than Ellsbury (31 to 30), and the fact that Ellsbury got $23 million more is a bit puzzling.
Sure, income taxes will likely take a chunk out of Ellsbury's total earnings while Choo will be subjected to no such tax in Texas, but the difference between their contracts is still quite sizable.
It is also worth mentioning that Choo's best skill, his ability to get on base, is one that ages well, so he should be expected to reach base at a considerable rate as he advances well into his 30's. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs has done great work disproving the notion that speed-oriented players don't age well, but a combination of Ellsbury's injury history and lack of an offensive track record (he has played just three seasons of at least 90 games in his career, and had a wRC+ above league-average in just two of them) make Choo appear as a safer bet to still be a productive regular towards the end of their seven-year commitments. Financially, this deal makes quite a bit of sense for Texas.
As for the rest of the AL West, Texas' latest addition likely makes them the early favorite for the division next season. The Athletics should once again contend for the division crown, both the Angels and Mariners have gotten better this offseason, and even the Astros figure to improve.
The A's still have more depth on paper, but the Rangers' star power is notably stronger, while the Mariners still look like more of an 85-win team than a squad capable of 90 wins, which will likely be the benchmark to net one of the Wild Card spots. However, Seattle may not be done yet, with the possibility of adding Nelson Cruz having increased with Texas out of the picture for his services.
As for the Angels, they surely won't be as bad as last year figuring a full season of both Albert Pujols and Jered Weaver, as well as the probability that Hamilton bounces back at least somewhat. They have also already upgraded their rotation via the Mark Trumbo deal, and are expected to be among the leading candidates to sign Matt Garza or Masahiro Tanaka if he is posted. Also, having Mike Trout never hurts.
If the season were to start today, here is what my guess of the final standings would look like:
For me, the A's and Angels appear pretty interchangeable with the Mariners not too far behind.
With Choo off the board, the biggest beneficiary is likely to be the aforementioned Cruz who should see a big boost in his market interest. The Mariners and Orioles appear to be the most likely destinations for the outfielder.
After Cruz, the crop of remaining position players is exceptionally thin, with Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales representing the only potentially above-average regulars still available. Pitching-wise, there seems to be more of an abundance, as Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour, AJ Burnett, and potentially Tanaka have all yet to sign.