It’s been an underwhelming offseason for the Cleveland Indians.
The only addition to the 25-man roster has been Austin Kearns, and the closest we’ve come to an interesting rumor was the nail-biting excitement surrounding Nick Punto at the Winter Meetings. And now that the Indians have locked up all of their arbitration-eligible players without hearings for the 20th year in a row, Tribe fans won’t even get to see the heart-pounding drama of players and team exchanging salary figures. But while none of the team’s offseason maneuverings have much sex appeal (metaphorically or literally—we haven’t seen any Grady Sizemore pictures in a while), there’s one recent bit of news that should give Clevelanders a fuzzy feeling inside.
Everyone knows that Shin-Soo Choo is the Indians’ best player, and everyone knows that he’s one of the most underappreciated players in the game. In a chat at FanGraphs.com last month, a commenter named Austin summed it up best:
Choo is the only player with the power to remain underrated while he’s everyone’s go-to example of an underrated player.
Choo’s incredible ability to let his tremendous talent fly under the radar was on full display Tuesday, when he avoided arbitration with the Indians by signing a one-year, $3.975 million contract. Call me short-sighted if you like, but to me this deal was absolutely the steal of the offseason.
As a first-time arb-eligible player, Choo’s 2011 salary should represent about 40 percent of what he would be worth on the free agent market. That puts his free-market value at $9.9375 million a year. In a market where a win above replacement is worth roughly $5 million, the Indians are paying Choo as if he is worth 2 WAR—i.e., a league-average player.
The idea Shin-Soo Choo is “average” is completely absurd, no matter what statistics you use. In 2010, he hit .300/.401/.484 with 22 homers, 90 RBI, 81 runs, 22 steals, a .388 wOBA, 147 wRC+, and 5.6 WAR (FanGraphs model). And that may be underselling it; Baseball-Reference.com has him at 7.3 WAR, making him the second-best player in baseball.
Here’s an illustration of Choo’s talent compared to a similar player who recently earned a slightly more lucrative contract (graph courtesy of FanGraphs):
The green line? That’s Choo. The orange one is Jayson Werth, who is four years older and has been worse over the last two years (10.5 WAR to 9.9) while playing in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. Werth just got a seven-year contract that guarantees him an average salary of $18 million; when he’s 38, he’ll be paid more than twice as much ($21 million) as Choo is apparently worth at age 28.
Okay, but Werth was an overpay, right? Maybe so, but he’s hardly the only just-signed free agent who is apparently worth more than Choo. Rafael Soriano, Paul Konerko, and Aubrey Huff are part of the not-so-exclusive club of players who the market says are worth more than $10 million in 2011. Carlos Pena—he of the .196 average last year—is getting eight digits from the Cubs, but maybe it’s not fair to hold first basemen (traditionally soft-hitting as they are) to the same standards as right fielders. Surely we can draw the line at injury-riddled Magglio Ordonez, who is eight years older and wouldn’t be nearly as valuable as Choo even if his health was guaranteed?
This isn’t just a matter of a flaw in the arbitration process, or else we’d see the same pattern in similar players. Take Matt Holliday. When he was entering his first arbitration-eligible season, Holliday’s résumé matched up with Choo’s almost perfectly, except he was a season behind (he was 27):
Choo now has everything Holliday had then, plus an additional MVP-caliber season under his belt. Of course, Holliday played half his games at Coors Field, and his best season to date (4.0 WAR) wasn’t nearly as impressive as what Choo did last year. But Holliday got $4.4 million. Given the economic climate, that works out to an expected value of around 3 WAR—still a great value, especially since he nearly won the NL MVP that year. But at least his salary reflected his status as an above-average player.
If Choo repeats his 2010 performance, he’ll be worth $28 million—and that could be underestimating him. If we use Baseball-Reference’s 7.3 WAR mark as our reference point, he could lose a full win of value and still be worth more than Alex Rodriguez will be paid this year. But throw in the improving strikeout and walk rates he posted last year, the fact that his BABIP was the lowest of his career, and his age, and there are no signs that he’s bound to come back to earth. In fact, there’s reason to believe he might get even better.
Of course, none of this will make any difference this year—the Indians aren’t expecting to be more than fringe contenders in 2011, so the savings aren’t likely to translate to a big late-winter splash for the Tribe. As for Choo, he might want to get himself a new agent. I don’t think this Scott Boras guy really knows how to get the most money for his clients.