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What The Reds Covet In Shin-Soo Choo

Somehow, Shin-Soo Choo has yet to make an All-Star Game. The 2009 and 2010 seasons saw him as the fourth-best outfielder in the game by both WAR (11.2, behind Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, and Matt Holliday) and wRC+ (139; behind Holliday, Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun).

But an injury-racked and ineffective 2011 — .259/.344/.390 in 85 games — was just part of a disappointing Indians campaign. Choo hit a sharp .283/.373/.441 in a rebound 2012, but at 30 years old, his fielding skills may be declining and he’s projected to earn $7.6 million in his final arbitration season according to Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors. A 68-win season for Cleveland in 2012 has left Choo squarely on the trade block.

It appears the Indians have found a taker in Cincinnati — Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com reported the Indians are in talks to acquire center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius from the Reds.

For the Indians, this appears to be a precursor to another deal, given the shortstop logjam Gregorius and Asdrubal Cabrera would present at shortstop. For the Reds, it’s an opportunity to add depth to an already sharp lineup and deftly patch a persistent gaping hole at the leadoff spot.

Choo suffered through multiple injuries in the 2011 season, missing 41 games to thumb surgery from June through August. Shortly after his return, a sore oblique turned into an oblique strain, forcing him to miss 39 more games as the season wound down. The result was just an 85-game season for Choo, and worse, it was by far his most trying season of his career. He hit just .259/.344/.390, with his power in general and his pull power in particular gone.

The 2012 season didn’t see Choo reach his peak pull power potential — in 2010, he hit .388 with 14 home runs to right field — and it was his worst pull power output since his breakout 2008 season. Choo did manage to pull eight home runs, though, half of his total. The overall result was just a step below his best efforts with the bat. His wRC+ to right field went up from 55 to 127; his overall wRC+ went from 105 to 131.

Despite being a left-handed batter, Choo’s bread-and-butter is hits to left and center fields. He owns a career 187 wRC+ to left field and a 185 mark to center field. Even as he struggled through the 2011 season, Choo still managed a 205 wRC+ to left field and a 192 mark up the middle.

Choo’s ability to hit the ball hard to the opposite field and up the middle is what sets him apart from most hitters. He hasn’t put the ball out of the park with those drives, but he notched 32 doubles to left field and center field combined in 2012. At 30, he should still be in his physical peak, able to keep up power to right field.

His opposite field prowess is more about line drives than power — he has 73 doubles against 16 home runs to left field in his career — but a move to Cincinnati could unleash some opposite field thump. The Reds feature a particularly good home run park for right-handed hitters (or oppo-knocking lefties) — a 114 park factor in 2011 according to the Guts page — thanks to a power alley extending out to just 379 feet in left center.

Cleveland’s dimensions are rather similar — 370 feet to left center — but the wall is roughly 11 feet higher, ostensibly turning at least a few would-be home runs into doubles. Mostly thanks to that fence, Progressive Field has just a 93 park fact for right-handed home runs. Choo’s 55 percent fly ball rate to left field should play much better at the Great American Small Park.

If this trade goes through, the Reds will have an excellent offensive outfield between Choo, Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce. But who plays center? The trio has a combined 39 innings in center field since 2009 (31 from Ludwick, eight from Choo). Knobler suggests it’ll be Choo:

The Reds plan to use Choo in center field and as their leadoff man. Choo has played just 10 games in center field for the Indians, none since 2009. But the Reds believe that whatever they lost defensively would be made up with Choo’s offensive contributions.

It’s a calculated risk. Choo posted a minus-17 UZR and minus-12 DRS in right field last year, but he has historically rated high in the metrics and in reputation. But Choo doesn’t have to be good or even average in center field to be an overall upgrade versus Stubbs. Choo was 46 runs better at the plate than Stubbs in 2012 and 120 runs better over the past four seasons combined.

Center field may be an adventure for the Reds this season should the trade go through, but Choo’s bat seems like a perfect fit for Cincinnati. His line-drive style should allow him to take advantage of every square inch of the park — and a few over the fence, too. The leadoff spot produced just a .208/.254/.327 line last season in Cincinnati. At the very least, such problems will be history for Cincinnati if the proposed trade indeed brings Choo to town.