The 2013 Winter Meetings came and went without a team reaching an agreement with Shin-Soo Choo, the best free agent outfielder available, at least after the signing of Jacoby Ellsbury. During the meetings, reports were coming in from various sources who report on such things that the Rangers, the Reds, and perhaps the Mariners were all kicking Choo’s tires. All of this makes sense. Those were three reasonable destinations for Choo at the time. But the rumors were just that, and nothing was doing on that front as the Winter Meetings came to a close. Then, as the meetings were winding down and people were boarding planes home, USA Today’s Bob Nigtengale tweeted this:
One veteran GM believes that the #Astros will wind up to be the landing spot for Shin-Soo Choo.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 12, 2013
Other people on Twitter responded with some very reasonable questions, namely “What?” and “Why?”. But, sure enough, other reporters started saying that they had heard the same thing — the Astros were at least thinking about Shin-Soo Choo. Certainly, at first blush, a bad team spending big money on a free agent seems a little out of sorts. This was a big argument with the Robinson Cano deal. But the Cano signing has layers beyond that, and so would a hypothetical deal with Choo and the Astros. While it might seem farfetched and ill-advised now, the Astros bringing on a big name and big talent like Choo could seem very reasonable quite soon.
For the sake of argument, I’m going to start with what the FanGraphs crowdsourcing project came up with in regards to Choo’s contract. There have been rumblings from at least one writer — who, shall we say, has been known to herald players represented by Choo’s agent Scott Boras — that Choo’s camp might be looking for a Jacoby-Ellsbury-type deal. If that is the case, all bets are off. That would not be a very good deal for the Astros. Or any team, really. The FanGraphs readership pegged Choo for five years, $81 million. Six years sounds more reasonable, and something the Astros would probably have to offer to get a very good free agent to join their young upstart club. So let’s say six years and $100 million, just to make it a nice round number.
|Age||Salary (Million)||WAR||$ (Million)/War|
The above table uses a standard .5 WAR yearly regression through age 33, then a .7 regression thereafter. Looking at it again, this seems low. This would be too team-friendly of an offer, and Boras is too good of an agent, for this to be the final number. If a club can get Choo for this, good on them. That would be a relative steal. Jeff Passan has recently reported that the Yankees offered Choo a seven-year, $140 million deal. Choo and Boras reportedly turned that down. That could be for money reasons, it could be for other reasons. Choo is rumored to be considering his move very seriously, and how it will affect his happiness and that of his family. Perhaps New York just isn’t the place for him. Or, maybe he just wants an Ellsbury deal. But if he were to accept that offer from another club, this is what the breakdown would look like.
|Age||Salary (Million)||WAR||$ (Million)/War|
This deal starts to go south sooner, and ends quite badly in the last two years, even adjusting for price-per-win inflation. There are some other things to consider, however. First off, Choo’s WAR this year was slightly deflated due to the Reds’ insistence on playing him out of position in center field. UZR pegs his best position as left field, and if he had played there, his 2013 value (the basis for the regression) could have seen a slight uptick. Not a huge one, certainly, but a non-negative defensive number would have brought up the baseline a little. What might make a bigger difference in this equation is Choo’s impressive 15.7% walk rate. That was good enough for second best in the league in 2013, behind Joey Votto. According to aging curve research done on this very site, we can see that BB% declines with age, but not a whole lot. Plate discipline ages well, and Choo would be looking at about a 1% decline between the beginning and end of our hypothetical contract. Which would leave him at a 15.54 BB%. That, in 2013, would still be second best. Looking at the aging curve for isolated power, Choo would drop down to about .167. For reference, a 2018 Shin-Soo Choo is projected to walk like a 2013 Mike Trout and hit for power like a 2013 Adrian Gonzalez. Could be worse. He has a chance to slightly outperform this standard aging regression given the skill set he’s starting with. How much so is up for debate, but let’s say his decelerated regression leads to him decreasing .5 WAR all throughout the contract, rather than .7 after his age-33 season.
|Age||Salary (Million)||WAR||$ (Million)/War|
If this can be seen as a viable road map, and Choo stays relatively healthy, he will be serviceable enough in his later years to justify the value gained at the top of his contract. This would be good for the Rangers or the Reds, let’s say, but is it good for the Astros? The Astros lost 111 games in 2013. If they added two Shin-Soo Choos, they wouldn’t magically change into a playoff contender in 2014. But signing Choo, at least for Houston, wouldn’t be a move for 2014. It would be a move for 2015 or 2016, when he would still be providing a high relative value and the rest of the team was coming together around him. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Astros have been reinforcing their farm system quite a bit as of late. And pretty soon, some of these players will have to be brought up. When they are brought up, and it’s time to see if this grand experiment worked, it would be nice if Houston had a cornerstone already in the lineup. According to MLB Trade Rumors, here is the list of corner-outfield free agents available in 2015.
Tony Gwynn Jr.
The pickings, they are slim. By “wasting” a year on Choo in 2014, the Astros would still have a productive left fielder to pair with their young core the following year. They’ve already added Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman. They’ve started to bolster their historically-bad bullpen. 2014 won’t be their year, but that could start to change as soon as 2015. It seems a little silly to project a 2015 roster, especially when so much of it will be filled by current minor-leaguers, but here is a speculative one just for the sake of argument, with Choo installed.
Astros fans — there are still some out there, I checked — are intrigued right now. Not because of my fictitious-roster construction skills but because they’ve seen these names before. They’ve read about the potential of some of these young men. They want to see them on a major-league field. Adding a veteran on-base machine to mix only makes it better. It’s a pie-in-the-sky prediction, no doubt, to say that five prospects will progress enough to make the opening day roster in a year and a half, but there are always possibilities for short-term stopgaps or surprising surges from current roster members. It’s an idea more than a factual statement. It’s an idea that, with proper development mixed with a little bit of luck, the Astros can be relevant sooner than some may think. This doesn’t need to be a roster of world-beaters. It needs to be a roster that consists of more average or better players than last season’s roster did. Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Castro, Jose Altuve and a group of fill-ins and raw talent probably aren’t going to make a run at a championship, but it’s a better-than-decent team and a large step in the direction of releasing the Astros from their role as league punching bag and the butt of so many jokes.
Shin-Soo Choo would make this team better — unquestionably. The monetary cost of that is a big concern. The Astros have been watching their pocketbooks as of late. Their entire 2013 payroll was $26 million and $5 million of that was to Wandy Rodriguez, who was playing for the Pirates. It made sense for the Astros to save money. There was not a whole lot of difference between 91 losses and 111 losses when the goal was to remake this dumpster fire of a team. Save the money, and spend it when the time is right. On the grand scheme of things, though, there are other costs besides monetary ones — karmic costs, good-will overhead — that need to be considered.
I started a project at the beginning of the 2013 season in which I would follow the Astros for a year. That project is still ongoing. It seems like an exercise in masochism, but it was more of a social study. To see how the other half lives. The very, very depressing other half. As a result of this I, willingly, watched about 130 Houston Astros games. It was actually a very enlightening experience, and one I wouldn’t give back, but I did begin to feel — especially toward the end, as the team closed out the season with a 15-game losing streak — like I understood a little of what Houston fans were feeling. It was rough. Rougher than I thought. There’s something cosmically unsettling about being sure of a defeat, watching the contest anyway, and being right the whole time. It drains a person. Hope can only fuel someone so far. The Astros are in a position to throw something the fans’ way, to repay for some of these many lost hours.
The thing of it is, this wouldn’t be one of those eye-roll inducing signings meant to strictly placate the fans or bring people to the ballpark. This isn’t Montreal signing Pete Rose, or basically every move by the Rays’ first front office. It’s a right-minded baseball move, it’s just one Houston has to make a year or two early. Shin-Soo Choo, in name or skill, will not be available in 2015. That’s the way it goes sometimes. But by making the deal, by installing a quality major-league player that is sure to bring you a handful of good years and probably some average-ish years at the end, Houston can build a better team and start to mend some relationships at the same time.
The Astros, in the end, probably aren’t going to land Shin-Soo Choo. A team will probably end up overpaying for him when it’s all said and done. And if, indeed, Choo will end up with an Ellsbury deal, the Astros would be smart to stay away. But if all the stars align — if Choo is on the market long enough to bring his asking price down to a somewhat-manageable level — Houston has a chance to bump themselves back into the big time. There are certainly smarter ways to spend $140 million, but when a team has lost 498 games in the past five seasons, it makes sense to spend a little bit more today to give fans a better outlook on tomorrow.
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