Shin-Soo Choo signed a seven year contract with the Texas Rangers today, worth $130 million. Here's his background, career in context, and potential future.
Choo began his amateur career in Korea as a pitcher, but when the Mariners signed him (for $1.3 million) as a free agent in 2000 they moved him to the outfield, to take advantage of his speed and physical strength. He got off to a great start by hitting .302/.420/.513 for the Arizona Rookie League Mariners, stealing 12 bases and showing a high walk rate with 34 walks in 199 at-bats. Despite his performance, some scouts said he had problems with inside pitches and there was some skepticism that he would reproduce this at higher levels. I gave him a Grade B in my 2002 book, noting that "he might have some growing pains" but would be a fine player eventually.
Moved up to Class A Wisconsin for 2002, Choo hit .302/.417/.440 in 119 games, followed by a .308/.460/.564 mark in 11 games for Class A San Bernadino. He stole 37 bases, but was caught 21 times. I liked the 70 walks he drew and expected more power to develop, giving him a Grade B+ in the 2003 book and ranking him aggressively as the Number 23 Hitting Prospect in baseball. He had some rough edges on the bases but overall he looked very impressive.
Returning to the Cal League for '03, Choo hit .286/.365/.459 with 18 steals for Inland Empire, posting a somewhat disappointing +9 percent OPS. Scouts began quibbling about problems with his swing again. Influenced by these reports, I lowered his rating slightly to a Grade B, but noted he was still just 20 years old and still looked like a fine prospect to me.
Moved up to Double-A for 2004, Choo hit .315/.382/.462 for San Antonio, with 15 homers, 40 steals, and 56 walks in 132 games. I moved him back up to Grade B+ in the 2005 book, writing that I expected Choo to hit for more power as he matured, and that he could be "Rusty Greer with more speed."
Choo hit .282/.382/.431 in 115 games for Triple-A Tacoma in 2005, then went 1-for-18 in 10 games for the Mariners. Although his Triple-A production wasn't horrendous, his OPS dropped to just +3 percent, and there was a lot of buzz from Pacific Coast League scouts about how disappointing Choo was.
Indeed, two different front office officials (from different teams) told me that year that I had been much too enthusiastic about Choo in the past, and that his weaknesses were being exposed by better pitching. Influenced by these comments as well as his dropping production, I lowered his rating to a Grade C+ in the 2006 book.
Choo returned to Triple-A for '06 and was much better, hitting .320/.392/.496 with 26 steals in 94 games. The Mariners didn't seem to really believe in this however, and traded him to the Indians in late July for Ben Broussard. Choo hit .295/.373/.473 in 45 games for the Indians down the stretch. He lost much of '07 to injury,but roared to life with a .309/.357/.549 line in 2008. As you know, he's been a very strong player ever since.
In 853 games, Choo has hit .288/.389/.465 with a 134 OPS+, 135 wRC+, and a career WAR of 23.6.
Through age 30, here is his comp list:
Now, all of these guys were good players, but this list doesn't make me really comfortable about Choo lasting seven years. Gilkey was finished at 34. Calderon collapsed at 31. Bradley had a terrific year at age 30 but by 32 he had been dragged down by, well, himself.
O'Leary was finished at 33. So was Rowand. Hillenbrand, 31. Felipe Alou lasted until age 37 although his production was in steady decline after 34.
I'm glad to see Rusty Greer on this list because I comped him to Choo back in the minors, but he was done at 33. Cuddyer is still going strong at age 34, so that's good. Rondell White had a good season at age 33 then fell apart.
Doesn't fill me with a lot of confidence for Cho's chances to be playing well four years from now.
Dan Szymborski has tweeted some additional comps from the ZIPS system: Keith Hernadez, Wally Moon, Bobby Abreu, Willie Crawford, Von Hayes, Gene Hermanski, Bob Skinner, Norm Seibern, and Rusty Greer. Of this group, Hernandez was effective through 34. Moon had a good year at 33 then fell apart. Abreu was an effective hitter through 37.
Crawford collapsed at 30; Hayes at 32; Hermanski 31; Skinner 32; Seibern 33. And then there is Greer again.
If the Rangers are lucky, Choo will stay productive along the lines of Abreu and Alou for the life of the contract, declining with time but not getting to be a real drag until the last year or so. However, most of the comparable players, at least those seen that way by Sim Score and ZIPS, faded very quickly at some point in their early 30s. The average age was about 33.
If Choo follows an age curve like that, the second half of this contract will be troublesome.
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