Home is where the money is

December 11, 2013

Where will Choo Shin-soo end up playing in 2014? 

Texas Rangers are thought to be the front runner 

Shin-Soo Choo, Jonathan Lucroy

Choo Shin-soo, left, is still trying to find a new home for next year. (AP)

By Kim Tong-hyung

Coming off a career year at the age of 31, Choo Shin-soo finds himself an intriguing commodity in Major League Baseball’s free agent market. But where he lands in 2014 will be determined more by the falling dominoes than his superb ability as an outfielder.

With other high-profile free agents such as Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran inking lucrative deals with new teams, Choo is now the last big-ticket player left on the board.

A client of baseball super agent Scott Boras, the Korean outfielder has been looking to land a deal of $100 million-plus for six or seven years.

It bears further watching whether he will. A slew of American League teams such as the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees have been linked to Choo, and the Arizona Diamondbacks are among the National League clubs to express interest.

While these teams could definitely use another outfield bat, it appears that each of them has higher offseason priorities or is looking for cheaper options after spending big at other positions.

Choo was phenomenal as the leadoff hitter for the Cincinnati Reds last season, hitting .285 with 21 home runs, 107 runs and an on-base-percentage of .432, which ranked second among National League players.

While Choo’s defense as a centerfielder was subpar, it’s likely that his new team will see him as a corner outfielder. Choo had been decent in the right field with the Cleveland Indians, the club he played with for seven seasons until the 2012 season, flashing an above-average arm that once made him a coveted pitching prospect as a teenager.

Choo’s struggles against left-handed pitchers, however, could be considered a red flag for his potential suitors. Choo hit .317 with 21 home runs against right-handed pitchers last season, but only .215 with no home runs against lefties.

It bears further watching whether teams will be willing to offer a megadeal for a platoon player who may have to be benched against lefty starters or can be neutralized by lefty relievers in late-game situations.

The fact that Choo turns 32 next year may also limit his market value. It’s reasonable to think that Choo will maintain most of his effectiveness for about two or three more years, and his strike-zone judgment and ability to extend at-bats, which are critical for his superb on-base numbers, are skills less affected by the decline in athleticism.

However, it’s also hard to deny that a team that signs Choo to a six or seven-year contract will have to brace for the possibility that it will be paying the premium for a declining skill set in the last three or four years of the deal.

The Rangers and Tigers could be argued as the most logical options as Choo’s next club. Choo’s ability to get on base would benefit the Rangers, who were middle-of-the-pack in the American League in runs scored by their No. 1 and No. 2 hitters.

The Rangers have been one of the more prudent teams in the majors in the past several years and resigning their current outfielder Nelson Cruz would be a significantly cheaper way to go than to commit to Choo long-term.

However, it’s difficult to argue that Cruz would represent any improvement to the Rangers’ lineup, considering his declining power numbers, consistently bad outfield defense and poor on-base skills.

The Tigers continue to be discussed as a potential destination for Choo, regardless of their recent move to acquire outfielder Rajai Davis in a two-year deal. The team’s highest priorities, however, are signing its budding ace Max Scherzer to an extension and strengthening its bullpen depth, which may leave them with limited financial room to offer Choo serious money.

The possibility of Choo heading to Arizona seems to have diminished after the Diamondbacks added Mark Trumbo, a hard-hitting corner outfielder, in a three-team trade with the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago White Sox.

The Seattle Mariners, which was the first Major League club to sign Choo, are in desperate need of an outfield bat. The team is unlikely to spend $100 million on Choo, however, when it had just acquired Cano for $200 million plus.