Tom Loxas has been out in front of the rest of the Chicago media in virtually insisting that the Cubs will be adding a left-handed bat to the lineup this offseason. Of the many lefthanded bats available, one of the best fits for this team might be outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. Choo has been one of my favorite players in the game for quite a while now. A consistently underrated player who provides some pop and gets on base at a ridiculous rate, he was basically my ideal leadoff man. Unfortunately for interested teams, a tremendous season in Cincinnati erased the underrated tab and the possibility of buying him cheaply. At a large price tag, is the 32 year old outfielder still a good fit for the Cubs?
Shin-Soo Choo in 2014 and Beyond
Choo’s resurgence in Cincinnati was, by all measures, extremely impressive. He walked at a 15.7% rate, the highest of his career, and struck out only slightly more often (18.7%) than his career low (18.3%). His power ticked up after two years of depressed ISOs, though that may have been a product of playing in one of the league’s friendliest ballparks to hit in. Altogether, Choo posted a .393 wOBA and 151 wRC+ and 5.2 fWAR. Going forward, it’s unlikely that Choo can provide this kind of value consistently, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a valuable ballplayer. His batting average will likely remain in the .280 range, his walk rate probably regresses back towards his career 12% mark, and his ISO probably settles down in the .170 or so range. In today’s offensive wasteland, that’s a valuable ballplayer.
However, two very distinct problems plague Shin-Soo Choo: defense and lefthanded pitching. He was never above average in the field, but defensive metrics have been incredibly unkind to him in recent seasons. If he’s really -15 runs or so in the outfield, his bat is going to have to perform at the level it did in Cincinnati for him to be an all-star caliber outfielder going forward.
To give you an idea of how extreme Choo’s splits have been, here’s a table of his production splits since his first full season in 2009:
Choo’s struggles against lefties reached a new extreme in 2013, and it’s unclear whether his power against LHP will rebound. The OBP is respectable enough to keep him in the lineup, but such anemic power production is eventually going to induce LHP to really pound the zone against him. Luckily for him he’s lefty, and if he were reduced to a platoon bat near the end of his career, he’d still be getting 400-450 plate appearances per season. Given his ability to destroy righties, if he ended up as a platoon-only guy, I think he could still provide a lot of value.
Projecting Value in 2014 and Throughout the Contract
With all that in mind, it might be a good idea to try and approximate his value in 2014 and the next few seasons. If you’d like to skip to the table that sums up value, I won’t blame you, I’m just using the next few paragraphs for people to know where my numbers are coming from. As a reminder, this is a very rough approximation of value.
I like FanGraphs’ offensive WAR, which is simply calculated using wOBA. Assuming that Choo, who was fully healthy in 2013, will regress close to what he was before the injuries of 2011-2012, that’s a wOBA in the .375-.385 range. Due to his age, I’m going to use a .375 wOBA, slightly higher than what several projection systems have, but they don’t account for the injuries that nagged at Choo in 2011 and 2012. Over 700 PAs and a .315 league average, that’s about 33 runs above average. When moved back to right field, and assuming he’s healthy, I think a rebound to defensive value just below his previous marks in right field is doable, and that would make him roughly -5 runs in the field. Choo has been worth about -1 run on the basepaths that least two years, so that will likely stay the same. Altogether, that’s 27 runs above average. RF’s get a positional adjustment of -7.5 runs/600 PAs, so you’ve now got Choo at 18.25 runs above average in RF in 2014. Add in league (~1 run) and replacement level (~20 runs/600 PAs), and Choo is now at 42.6 runs above replacement. Assuming a run environment similar to 2013, that’s 4.6 wins above replacement.
To turn this into value, we’ll assume that the market for wins above replacement currently sits at roughly $6million per win above replacement, and undergoes 5% inflation annually. Why assume inflation? New TV contract money is going to continue to flow into game in the foreseeable future with teams like the Cubs still seeking new deals.
Ok, so I’ve shown why I believe Choo is roughly a 4.5 win player in 2014, and we’ll assume he’ll generally degrade by half a win (5 runs) per season. What kind of value would he provide over a 7 year contract?
If you think Choo is about a 4.5 win player right now, quite a bit. If you don’t think he’s quite that good? He could provide about $90 million in value over a 7 year deal. (He may even be worth a tick more than that at the back end of his contract as a platoon guy who sees less time in the outfield and almost no lefthanded pitchers.)
If Choo got a 6yr, $90 million contract like some are projecting, there’s a really strong chance he earns that deal and then some. I’d jump all over that deal. And if he gets the Jayson Werth money he’s asking for (7yrs, 126 mil), he’s got a strong chance to match that deal’s value over the entirety of the contract. It’s a higher risk due to his age, but it’s certainly not an outlandish deal.
The biggest problem for the Cubs is that Choo comes with draft pick compensation. Having declined his qualifying offer from Cincinnati, the Cubs, should they sign him, would be forfeiting a 2nd round pick. I’ll admit, I’m not quite sure how to value such a loss. Rany Jazayerli has done some research on this matter, and a pick at the top of the 2nd round is expected to provide roughly 10 WAR over the first fifteen years of their career, and about half of picks in the 30-40 overall range reach the majors.
That all said, I’m disinclined to apply that data to current draft picks. Previous drafts allowed good players to fall more often, due to a lack of a cap on spending. Good teams could hang around at the back end of rounds and throw huge sums of money at players. With that no longer possible, the amount of “questionable signability” guys who fall to through the first round should, in theory, be lower. If I had to guess, that draft pick is probably worth something around the average value of a second rounder from Rany’s study, or about a hair over 5 wins. In that case, I think you could discount Choo’s ultimate value to the team by about $30 million (more if the “missed draft pick” reaches MLB later on, less if he reaches sooner. Also, if the 2014 draft is truly as good as some are saying it is, it might be moe). After this adjustment, a 7 year, $110 million deal for Choo is about the maximum at which signing him makes sense.
The current Cubs outfield is dreadful. Their best piece in 2013, David Dejesus, is now in Tampa Bay. Without him, there’s no one who posted a BB% above 8% in meaningful playing time last season. Between Schierholtz, Sweeney, and Lake, the Cubs do not have one outfielder who could reasonably be expected to provide much more than league-average production. Adding Choo into this outfield immediately makes it better, and depending on your opinion of the guys listed above, it might make them better by 5 or more wins. That’s a significant improvement. Having his bat at the top of the lineup would be a welcome sight for Cubs fans, providing more opportunities for the sluggers in the middle of the lineup (well, slugger) to drive in runs. Bad teams are demoralizing, but when they can’t score runs it feels even worse than watching a poor rotation. If Choo can spark the offense, it might go a long way to winning back some fans who have been drifting away the last few seasons.
When the Cubs start graduating their premium prospects to the majors, there’s still going to be a need for a prototypical leadoff hitter at the top of the lineup. None of Baez, Bryant, Almora, Soler, or Alcantara project to be the type of hitter you want in your leadoff spot. If you want that lineup to get as many plate appearances with someone on base as possible, it’d be best to have a guy like Choo, who possesses the 6th best OBP in baseball since 2009, batting leadoff. Guys with great OBP skills do not come along very often, and a lineup full of sluggers needs them to be effective. If the Cubs are competing by 2016 or so, Choo will still have a year or two of being an above average player. Even at $18 million per, he could still be the type of hitter that is worth that contract.
Once Choo is below average, though, the Cubs are still left with a player who could provide a lot of value from the fat side of a platoon. If he’s still hitting righties to the tune of a 130 wRC+, he’s going to boost an offense that, given the prevalence of righthanded hitters in the system, might be vulnerable to same-handed pitching. And given the crazy trajectory the free agent market seems to be on, 400 PAs of 130 wRC+ might be worth close to $18 million.
So Why Sign Shin-Soo Choo
Given his on-base skills, Choo could be the type of bat the Cubs have needed for a very long time. A player who gets on base at such a clip will be necessary once the Cubs start graduating their premium power bats to the majors, and a player who can mash righties to the tune of a 150 or better wRC+ should mitigate some of the troubles a heavily right-handed lineup may face. The Cubs may be weary to forfeit a draft pick for an older player, but his ability to crush righties and get on base should spark an offense and draw fans in the near term, and make him a viable platoon option in the long-term. If the Cubs are truly committed to adding a left-handed bat this season, I believe Choo is the best one available.