The top remaining free-agent hitter on the market as of Saturday morning is no longer on the market as outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has come to terms with the Texas Rangers on a seven-year, $130 million contract. Choo's contract stands as the third-largest signed this offseason (after Robinson Cano's $240 million, ten-year deal with the Mariners and Jacoby Ellsbury's $153 million, seven-year deal with the Yankees) as well as the sixth-richest contract for an outfielder in major league history. Choo's deal surpasses, among others, the $125 million, five-year deal the Angels used to lure Josh Hamilton away from the Rangers a year ago.
That last comparison is particularly apt because Choo is the Hamilton replacement the Rangers failed to secure last offseason. In 2012, with Hamilton hitting .285/.354/.577 with 43 home runs and 128 RBIs, the Rangers led the major leagues with 4.99 runs scored per game. Without Hamilton or a sufficient replacement last year, the Rangers fell to 4.48 runs scored per game, which ranked seventh in the American League. Due in large part to the struggles of their offense, the 2013 Rangers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009, suffering a late-season collapse that concluded with a loss in the one-game playoff for the second wild-card spot.
The Rangers attempted to upgrade their offense earlier this offseason when they traded second baseman Ian Kinsler for first baseman Prince Fielder. The prospect of Fielder hitting in the power-friendly Ballpark in Arlington is certainly exciting, even for non-Rangers fans, but for that to be more than a lateral move, the Rangers need sophomore Jurickson Profar to mature into a sufficient replacement for Kinsler at second base.
Signing, Choo, however, is pure upgrade. What's more, despite his lower profile, Choo is a player very much capable of replacing Hamilton's value on the field. To cut to the chase, over the last six seasons, Hamilton has been worth 23.6 wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference's WAR statistic, an average of 3.9 bWAR per season, while Choo has been worth 24.4 bWAR, or 4.1 per season.
Choo doesn't put up the big power numbers that Hamilton does (his career highs are 22 home runs and 90 RBIs, both set with Cleveland in 2010), but he gets on base far more often, and steals more bases. Over the last six seasons combined, Choo has posted a .392 on-base percentage and stolen 100 bases, a rate of 21 per 162 games, at a 74 percent success rate. As a leadoff hitter, his role on the Reds this past season and likely role on the Rangers in 2014, he is an igniter, as evidenced by his career-high 107 runs scored this past season. Choo gets on base via the hit-by-pitch more often than you'd like, but in the tradition of Craig Biggio, Don Baylor, and Ron Hunt before him, he has proven that to be a repeatable skill, getting plunked 11 or more times in four of the last five seasons and leading the majors by being hit 26 times this past season.
Choo also brings 20-homer power (though he hit just 21 in Great American Ballpark this past season, so don't expect a big jump in power with the move to Arlington) and one of the best outfield throwing arms in the game. That last should make him the Rangers' right fielder with Alex Rios moving to left. Choo was playing over his head in center field for the Reds, but should return to being a solid overall fielder with the move back to right, which means he could be even more valuable in 2013 than he was in 2014.
With Choo in the fold, the Rangers now have a solid core locked up through at least 2017 with lefty Derek Holland signed through 2016 with an option for 2017, ace Yu Darvish signed through 2017, lefty Matt Harrison signed through 2017 with an option for 2018, Profar under team control until 2018, Martin Perez signed through 2017 with options for 2018-2020, Choo and Fielder signed through 2020, and shortstop Elvis Andrus signed through 2022 with an option for 2023. That's half the lineup, including three top-of-the-order hitters and 80-percent of the rotation, with a true-ace in Darvish leading the way, locked up for the next four years.
With the Rangers having added so much salary with Fielder (just $3.7 million more than Kinsler for 2014 but a total of $76 million more than Kinsler over the remainder of their contracts) and Choo, not to mention the extensions given earlier this year to Andrus and Harrison, who will make a combined $28 million in 2015, there's a clear sense that the Rangers have to make something happen in that four-year window. Choo should be well worth his average annual salary of $18.6 million for the bulk of his contract, but he will turn 38 in July of its final year, two years older than Hamilton will be when his Angels contract expires. As a player with speed and on-base skills, Choo should age gracefully, more gracefully than the fragile and impatient Hamilton or the bad-bodied Fielder, but by 2020, the Rangers will be paying a 37-year-old Choo and a 36-year-old Fielder roughly $38.3 million combined. That might not be a total disaster, but it's not part of the blueprint for building a winning ballclub.