The rumors are that having filled their closer vacancy the Tigers next top target is Shin-Soo Choo to play some left field for us. Most of us – at least those of us obsessive enough about baseball to be reading this – are familiar with Choo already. He’s one of the top free agents of the 2013-2014 class and has a fairly complete and well-rounded game, above average at everything and excelling at nothing (except drawing walks). Expect an .850 OPS (with 20 HR or close to it) or so and he’d also add some value with his glove and some value on the basepaths. There is a lot to like about Choo – including the fact that he’s likely to hit better than Prince Fielder did last year.
There are drawbacks too: Choo is likely to demand 5 years at least, so the deal is going to affect financial flexibility in the medium term, and he’s going to cost the team that signs him it’s first round pick – which is going to hurt the Tigers ability to reload as their core ages. He’s also going to turn 32 in the middle of next season, which isn’t great news for a guy who’s game does get some value from his legs. Still – guys with balanced skill sets like Choo are generally believed to age better than guys like Michael Bourn or Adam Dunn (he’s just going to get progressively more like Adam Dunn and less like Michael Bourn the older he gets).
I may have done Choo a bit of a disservice when I said he didn’t excel at anything but drawing walks (though he does excel at drawing walks, at a similar pace to Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder). Choo also excels at BABIP. To put that another, less “statty”, way Choo hits a lot of hard line drives and hard ground balls and rarely pops it up. His .350 career BABIP puts him up there with Miguel Cabrera and Derek Jeter and 5th in the majors in that metric over the past 6 seasons. BABIP gets a bad rap as a “skill” that it’s difficult to demonstrate that a guy really has, but Comerica Park is built for gap power – for the kind of hitter that Choo and Austin Jackson are (and their high BABIPs are because they both are that kind of hitter). He’s a good fit for the place that the Tigers play, is all I’m trying to say.
The jury is out as to how good we could expect Choo to be defensively – though he’d definitely be better than Carlos Beltran. The “metrics” don’t really agree on anything but the fact that he shouldn’t be playing center field any more. Through 2011 he was a plus defender all around, in 2012 (in right) and 2013 (in center) he was bad. I’d be inclined to blame the bad 2012 on his leg injuries and the bad 2013 on playing the wrong position, but we’ll see. The jury is not out as to Choo’s offensive contributions: he has not only had 20 HR power but has been exceptionally good at getting on base without clogging those basepaths while there (like, say, Prince Fielder or Victor Martinez). As I high-OBP lefty we can assume Choo will move to #3 in the lineup should the Tigers ink him to a deal, hitting ahead of Miguel Cabrera. If there’s one thing Cabrera hasn’t had in a while, it’s a guy who is always on base hitting ahead of him – should be interesting to see just how many runs Choo would score (my guess is “a lot”).
As for overall lineup structuring, something that has been discussed lately by Matt Snyder, I’d imagine that a Choo signing would push Ian Kinsler or Torii Hunter out of the #3 spot and almost certainly out of the top of the order entirely. I don’t think we’d want any sort of speed hitting after Victor Martinez at #5 (and probably would want a righty down there at #6 rather than Alex Avila) so I imagine we’d be planning on a lineup that looked like this:
1. Austin Jackson – CF
2. Ian Kinsler – 2B
3. Shin-Soo Choo – LF
4. Miguel Cabrera – 1B
5. Victor Martinez – DH
6. Torii Hunter – RF
7. Alex Avila – C
8. Nick Castellanos / Steve Lombardozzi – 3B
9. Jose Iglesias – SS
Using the same fancy lineup analysis tool Matt Snyder did, the addition of Choo would improve the Tigers offense by 0.161 runs per game vs. the lineup (with Dirks in LF batting 8th used by Snyder) without him. It’s probably worth mentioning that the lineup analysis tool says that the optimal lineup would have Choo leading off – just food for thought there. 0.161 runs per game doesn’t sound like a huge, huge amount but over 162 games that’s an extra 26 runs or 2.6 wins. Choo would not be an insignificant pickup by any means.