Until this afternoon, the Rangers had a fairly complete team, save for left field, which was a mixture of never-was’ and might-be’s. For a team that was struggling to keep up this offseason with its counterparts in the Bay Area and Orange County, that simply wasn’t going to cut it. A move needed to be made, and today Texas made their move by signing Shin-Soo Choo.
Currently, the starting left fielder on the Rangers’ depth chart is Jim Adduci. Last season, Adduci made his major league debut, and tallied eight hits in 34 plate appearances. Not bad, except when you consider the fact that it was Adduci’s age-28 season. With him fronting the group, the Rangers’ left field options ranked just 28th on our depth charts entering today.
Perhaps you don’t care for him — perhaps you’re more of the opinion that Engel Beltre should be the starter. The prescription with Beltre would have been a lot of defense, and a whole lot of 0-fers. In seven minor league seasons, Beltre has hit just .264/.312/.383. Triple-slash lines don’t always tell the whole story, but if it doesn’t tell the whole story, it certainly details the majority of it.
Then there’s Michael Choice, acquired by the Rangers in exchange for Craig Gentry. Choice certainly has potential, and the uptick in his walk rate at Triple-A last season was certainly encouraging. But entrusting him with the left field job when you’re preparing to compete for a division title probably wasn’t the best idea in the world. Certainly Oakland wasn’t willing to do it, and they probably knew Choice better than the Rangers do. If Choice plays well enough in his opportunities as the team’s fourth outfielder this season, the Rangers will have the luxury of declining Alex Rios‘ $13.5 million option, but for this season trusting Choice probably wasn’t the best course of action.
Of course, that didn’t mean the Rangers needed to run out and buy the most expensive bauble remaining on the free-agent market. They could have gone the route the Orioles did this week — trading for a less expensive, but also less productive player — and paired him with Choice. Certainly there is no shortage of left-handed hitting outfielders who crush righties out there. Seth Smith has barely unpacked his bags in San Diego, for instance. But that’s not what the Rangers chose to do. In signing Choo, they upgraded their on-base percentage immeasurably, and gave themselves the opportunity to have one of the game’s premiere offenses once again.
I say once again because Texas didn’t exactly brutalize opponents last season. Many of us in this community took great pains to show how smart Texas was to avoid re-signing Josh Hamilton, and at the end of the day, they probably were. But the offense did suffer, whether from the lack of his presence in the lineup, or from the depth on the team being extended just that little extra bit in compensating for his loss. Once you remove pitchers hitting from the equation, the Rangers’ offense finished seventh in wRC+ in 2012, but that number dipped to 19th in 2013. They were middling in both power (16th in ISO) and patience (14th in OBP), leaving them with little going for them. Choo will upgrade both, but particularly the team’s OBP.
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.
It should also be noted that one of the other six is one of his new teammates, Prince Fielder. Past results are not necessarily predictive of future results and all that, but it’s hard to imagine injecting more offense into a ballclub than the Rangers have with the additions of Fielder and Choo. This is especially true when you consider that the one player lost in acquiring Fielder and Choo — Ian Kinsler — may be ably replaced offensively by his replacement, Jurickson Profar.
This should be a fairly big shot in the arm for Texas’ offense, and as an added bonus, it balances their lineup completely. Ostensibly now, of the nine players in the Rangers’ starting lineup, four hit right-handed (Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, Geovany Soto and Rios), four hit left-handed (Leonys Martin, Mitch Moreland, Choo and Fielder) and one hits both ways (Profar). Not too shabby.
Much has been made of Choo’s platoon splits, and they are significant. As I noted at ESPN earlier in the week, Choo has slugged just .293 against lefties across the past three seasons. Among qualified players, the only player worse has been Justin Morneau. It is likely in these situations where the Rangers will attempt to break Choice into the lineup. If leveraged properly, the Rangers will get the best of both worlds — they’ll get an opportunity to give Choo a breather every now and then while also giving Choice the best possible chance to successfully transition into major league life.
The only downside so far is that the deal is for seven years, but even here the Rangers didn’t do that poorly. The team has not been shy about handing out long-term extensions — Fielder, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Elvis Andrus are already on the books through 2017 — but in getting Choo at $130 million rather than the $143 million or more that agent Scott Boras wanted, Texas was able to shave his AAV down under the $20 million line. That’s not bad. 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.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, this was the last move they needed to make. When you have multiple holes to fill on your roster, signing someone like say oh I don’t know, Robinson Cano, isn’t going to help much in the grand scheme of things. But when the player essentially completes the team, as Choo does, it becomes a lot more defensible. Maybe the Rangers could upgrade their bullpen or their DH position, but they are essentially done for the winter now, unless they blow something up. That makes the decision to sign Choo a whole lot easier, especially when he comes cheaper than expected.
Before today, the Rangers were about one player short of a full, contending team. They had a hole in left field that was shaky at best and untenable at worst. It was forecasted to be one of the worst in the game, and even if you had flipped Choice to the top of the heap and Adduci and Engel Beltre down, it would still have been safely ensconced in the bottom 10 teams. Bringing Choo into the fold changes that in just about as much as they possibly could, and helps ensure that the three-way race for the American League West (sorry, Houston and Seattle) will once again be must-see baseball.
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