There was a rumor the other day that Shin-Soo Choo turned down a seven-year contract offer from the Yankees worth $140 million. I’m not sure I believe that, but Scott Boras has been aiming high, as Scott Boras does. There are reports out that Boras is seeking Jacoby Ellsbury money, and in his most recent chat, Dave figured that Choo would end up with Jayson Werth money. The message is this: Choo is the impact guy who remains on the free-agent market, and he’s going to get paid. Plenty of teams are after him, and in the end he should get at least six years, and something in the vicinity of $20 million per. While he doesn’t come with Ellsbury’s potential for all-around value, Choo gets on base an awful lot, and what’s more important than getting on base?
A number of teams are interested in Choo, meaning a number of teams are looking for a quality corner outfielder, and have money to spend. Due to the laws of this world and this league, only one of the interested teams will actually get Choo, since there’s only just the one of him. But there is an alternative out there, and it doesn’t take the form of Nelson Cruz. The alternative is almost as good a player, and from all indications he’d be pretty easy to get. All you’d need to do is place a call to the Dodgers.
Next April, Andre Ethier is going to turn 32 years old. Three months later, Shin-Soo Choo will do the same thing, meaning they’re effectively the same age. They’re both left-handed, and they’re both listed a little over 200 pounds, with Ethier having an extra few inches. They’re both corner outfielders with recent experience in the middle. Ethier’s been a regular for longer, but over the past three years, they’ve had just about the same amount of playing time. Choo, of course, is a free agent. Ethier belongs to the Dodgers, under contract for another few years. The Dodgers would be tickled to be able to move a body from a crowded corner of the roster.
The names just feel different. There’s a perception of a pretty big gap. All Choo does is get on base, when he’s not hitting for a decent amount of power. Ethier, meanwhile, feels under-powered, and he’s not a good Gold Glove candidate. People have criticized the Dodgers for the contract they gave him, and the assumption all along has been that the Dodgers would need to eat some salary to ship Ethier somewhere else. That might be true, but when you actually compare Ethier just to Choo, by themselves, you can come away pretty convinced that Ethier would be the better investment.
We can begin in earnest with two statements that should be fairly inarguable:
- Shin-Soo Choo is better than Andre Ethier
- We need to care about more than just 2013 statistics
Over the past three years, Choo has been worth just about 30 runs more than Ethier, offensively, combining hitting and running. Choo has posted a considerably higher OBP, mitigated to some extent by the fact neither has really been a masher, and Ethier spent half that time in Dodger Stadium. Steamer projects that Choo will be 14 runs better in the season to come, but the players are also given wildly different playing times. Set them both to 600 plate appearances, and the projected difference comes out to eight. Let’s call it ten. Neither seems like any kind of particular injury risk.
You know who hits righties well? Both these guys. The last three years, Choo’s had an 11-point advantage in wRC+. You know who hits lefties well? Neither of these guys. Both have been lousy against southpaws, with Choo again having the edge. Still though, he’s been bad. Choo’s been able to get on base more, while Ethier’s been able to hit for power more, but they both look like big-money platoon candidates. Big wide splits, for both of them.
The other component of overall value is defense, and this is where there are a lot of questions. Plenty of people don’t trust the data we’ve got, and we all want the data to be better than it is. But the data we’ve got also happens to draw Ethier and Choo closer together. Over three years, by DRS, Ethier has been 19 runs better as a corner outfielder, in a few hundred more innings. He’s been 17 runs better as a corner outfielder, by UZR. By DRS, Ethier’s been 15 runs better as a center fielder, in half the time. UZR puts the difference at 16. Put it all together and Choo’s three-year WAR is 9.0. Ethier’s three-year WAR is 8.6. The numbers we’ve got for defense all but completely erode Choo’s considerable offensive edge.
But, absolutely, there’s uncertainty there. Ethier is probably the better defensive outfielder, but we don’t know by how much, especially going forward. Let’s just say that, beginning now, Choo is about five runs better as a player. The difference was bigger than that in the season that just ended, but Ethier had the higher WAR the previous two years. And the specific number isn’t going to make a huge difference anyway.
Ethier’s under guaranteed contract another four years, for $71.5 million. That goes up to five years and $86.5 million if an option vests, but that would require 550 plate appearances in 2017 and that would presumably require that Ethier still be all right. If you start him off at 3 WAR and dock 0.5 per season, you’d end up at 9 WAR after four years or 10 WAR after five. No matter what, you’re paying a little more than the current market rate for wins. That’s why people think the Dodgers would have to eat money.
Let’s be conservative and say Choo signs for six years and $108 million. Start him off at 3.5 WAR and dock 0.5 per season, and after six seasons you’d end up at 13.5 WAR. But Choo could get a higher average annual value, or he could get the same AAV over seven years. Again, you’re probably paying a little more than the current market rate for wins. It doesn’t look like there’s a bargain to be had out of the Shin-Soo Choo negotiations.
And then there’s the additional matter of the qualifying offer that Choo turned down. Sign Choo and you lose a draft pick, and that draft pick will be valued at some millions of dollars. Not a lot, but it still counts. If you trade for Ethier, you probably give up a nothing prospect so long as you take the whole salary.
If Choo’s better than Ethier now, he should project to be better than Ethier in the future. But it doesn’t look like he’s better by a whole lot, and I think it’s stretching it to say the difference is even as much as a win. Ethier will have an AAV of either $17.9 million over four years, or $17.3 million over five. Choo ought to beat that AAV, at least by a little, and then Choo’s also going to have a longer deal, by the end of which he could be almost worthless.
Choo is probably going to be better than Ethier for as long as Ethier is under contract. But, probably, he won’t be better by much, and he’ll get paid more, and he’ll cost a draft pick, and he’ll be under expensive contract longer. If you’re just trying to win immediately, Choo can get you closer, but that comes at a considerable long-term cost. If you look at the big picture, Ethier might well be the better get. Or he could simply be just as good an acquisition. Those last years are important, even if they’re almost impossible to think about today.
This is less an argument to trade for Andre Ethier’s whole contract, and more an argument to avoid paying out the nose for Shin-Soo Choo because you love his OBP. We can’t speak to the real current state of free-agent negotiations, but if there are teams thinking about six and seven years for Choo, they should also be thinking about Ethier, who could be had for little in a matter of minutes. And if the Dodgers are willing to eat a little salary, all the better. Andre Ethier isn’t signed to a good contract. But Choo’s probably not going to be, either, and that contract’s going to last an awful long time.
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