Monday, November 5, 2012

Two Outfield Trade Candidates: Shin-Soo Choo

Right now, Major League front offices are clamoring to compile data and information about free agents that they think would be good fits for their team heading into the 2013 season. While free agency is a great way to upgrade a club, another option exists, the trade. Already this offseason we have seen a trade between the Diamondbacks, A's, and Miami Marlins that sent Chris Young to the A's and Heath Bell to Arizona. Trades don't involve long term commitments and writing huge checks like a free agent signing, instead team's can find ways to upgrade their club, whether by addition or subtraction.

Two players whose names have been mentioned as possible trade candidates this offseason are Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians and Josh Willingham of the Twins. As far as positions go, the deepest market this offseason is in the outfield, but teams, especially in small markets, often cannot afford the price tags on free agents, but instead have assets they can trade in order to upgrade. Corner outfielders like Choo and Willingham could provide serious help to teams in need. Let's explore what these players bring to the table, and where they could end up. In this article, I will talk solely about Shin-Soo Choo, and in tomorrow's I will delve into the market for Josh Willingham.

Shin-Soo Choo: The first thing to notice about Choo's career thus far is that when he's healthy, he contributes at above replacement level, but he has been hit by the injury bug a few times. In 5 seasons with the Indians, Choo has averaged ~ 3.7 fWAR per season. That is on par with outfielders like B.J. Upton, Torii Hunter, and Ichiro Suzuki. So, we are talking about a productive player, but where does he derive this production?

Choo has put up very good wOBA and wRC+ numbers the last few seasons, proving that he is a good all around hitter.

 His best asset at the plate is his ability to get on base. Over the last 5 seasons, Choo's on base percentage has ranged from as low as .344 to as high as .401. Even in his worst season, Choo still got on base at the same rate as Josh Hamilton, Brett Gardner, and Chipper Jones, which is pretty impressive. Choo's impressive walk rate of ~ 11% per season is good enough to consistently place him in the top 30 hitters in MLB. He has batted in numerous spots in the Indians order over the years, making him quite useful to any manager. Choo is a selective hitter, something that usually does not diminish with age, a good sign for any team looking to deal for him. 

In addition to his propensity to reach base safely, Choo has shown sign of a legitimate power stroke. He has hit at least 20 home runs twice in his career, and his average ISO over the last 5 seasons has been ~ .181, a good mark for a hitter that is careful in selecting which pitch to hit. In addition, Choo has consistently had a better-than-average HR/FB%, meaning that when he hits the ball in the air, he's usually found a pitch he can drive, which fits his profile as a selective hitter. While power tends to drop with age, Choo's ability to slug the ball is a secondary trait, one that any team with the hope to land him shouldn't and most likely wouldn't count on. 

Defensively, Choo has been a bit all over the place. In his last 5 seasons he has played predominantly in right field, but has played a bit in center field as well. Here are some defensive numbers to look at:
 Choo has proven that he can play the outfield fairly well. In 3/5 seasons show, Choo put up positive numbers in both DRS and FRAA, while doing so only twice according to UZR. Last season, neither UZR nor DRS liked Choo's performance, but Baseball Prospectus' fielding runs above average put him as an outfielder that makes about all the plays an average outfielder does. These numbers prove that while his best defensive days may be behind him, if Choo can stay healthy, he will provide adequate enough defensive play for any team willing to acquire him. 

A team willing to trade for Choo would be taking on his current contract. Choo is in his 2nd year of arbitration eligability, which means he wouldn't become a free agent until after the 2013 season. He was awarded $4.9 million in arbitration last season, and that figure should rise somewhat this offseason, but most likely no team will end up paying him more than $10 million next season. 2011 was a down season production-wise for Choo, and according to Fangraphs he was worth just over $11 million, so a year of arbitration eligibility would be a steal for Choo. Given his age, he will turn 31 in July, 2013, a team trading for Choo would want to try to sign him to an extension. If I were a front office, having recently traded for Choo, I would offer him a contract extension in the neighborhood of 3 years and $35 million. That implies he will put up on average about 2.5 fWAR per season, which at his age, and given his past production shouldn't be a problem. 

Teams that should seriously consider trading for Choo include the Pirates, Phillies, Blue Jays, and Orioles. The Indians would most likely want a solid pitching prospect in return for the outfielder. Their asking price can't be too high as Choo is set to reach free agency in 2014 and the current market is flush for outfielders. A trade would give the Indians some more money to throw at possible free agent targets of their own while gaining some more depth in their farm system, which is never a bad thing for a mid-market team.

The Phillies traded Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino before the trade deadline this past season to make room for youngsters Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. while simultaneously replenishing some of their recently depleted farm system. While the team is actively looking to sign a center fielder this offseason, trading for a hitter like Choo might be more cost effective, and would provide more hitters in their lineup to get on base for guys like Howard and Utley to knock in. 

The Pirates have a stud center fielder in Andrew McCutchen, but have had some issues with their corner outfield spots. Youngster Starling Marte looked good, and he, Jose Tabata, and Garrett Jones will vy for the two corner outfield spots heading into 2013. On the other hand, if Neal Huntington, who has said the team does not intend to spend a lot this offseason, traded for Choo, the Buccos could start Choo and Marte alongside McCutchen, making a fairly formidable outfield trio. Their team OBP last season was .304. Choo would come in and have the 2nd highest OBP on the team, and that is using his worst OBP mark from the last 5 years. 

The Blue Jays don't need Shin-Soo Choo, but he could be a good acquisition anyway. If the team were to add Choo, their outfield would sport Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista, and Choo. He would instantly become in the top 3 on the team in OBP, and it would allow the team to move Bautista to left field, giving them at least an average glove in all three outfield spots. The team has many prospects, but has other areas of improvement to focus on prior to trading for an outfielder, so while this trade would be beneficial, and the team could easily deal a prospect, this trade wouldn't be high on Alex Anthopoulos' offseason priority list.

The Baltimore Orioles represent a dark horse candidate. The team his Nick Markakis in right field, but adding Choo and moving him to left field would give the Orioles a very solid outfield for 2013. This is a team that made the playoffs despite poor overall hitting. Choo would be a great upgrade in the lineup, as he and Markakis had similar lines of production last season, except that Choo scored more runs and stole 20 more bases than Markakis. An outfield of Choo, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis, even for just one season, might be worth giving up someone like Brian Matusz. Pitching wasn't the Orioles issue last season, it was hitting, and adding Choo would definitely bolster their offensive output. 

So, what will happen? I don't know. There is a solid chance that the Indians attempt to sign Choo to a contract extension this offseason, locking him down through 2014 when he is eligible for free agency. On the other hand, if they cannot agree on an extension, a trade is very likely. The Pirates and Orioles make the most sense, but the overall winner of the possible Choo sweepstakes will be determined by the Indians' asking price. Shin-Soo Choo is a solid player whose name has gone under the radar because of the good outfield market this offseason. No free agent outfielder has signed a deal yet, but we have seen the Diamondbacks shed extra outfield weight through a trade, making the possible trade of Choo a little more likely. If the Indians fail to extend their right fielder, look for a possible deal to happen during the Winter Meetings in Nashville in the first week of December. 

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