Tuesday was an extremely busy day for the Indians’ front office. With the deadline for players and teams to submit arbitration figures at noon EST, five of the Tribe’s seven arbitration-eligible players bypassed the arbitration process and agreed to contracts for 2012. The most high-profile and expensive of these players was right fielder Shin-Soo Choo.
A little over a year ago, a FanGraphs chat participant named Austin offered one of my favorite internet comments of all time:
"Choo is the only player with the power to remain underrated while he’s everyone’s go-to example of an underrated player."
These words rang especially true when the news broke that the Indians had signed Choo to a one-year extension worth $4.9 million.
In a vacuum, a roughly $5 million salary wouldn’t seem like an underpay for an arbitration-eligible player coming off the season Choo just had. The 29-year-old left-hander missed almost half the season to injuries. He hit just .259 in 85 games, and his 10 percent walk rate and .131 ISO were both his worst since becoming an MLB regular. He got in trouble off the field too, getting busted for a DUI in March.
But what does a $4.9 million salary really mean? A good rule of thumb for second-year arbitration-eligible players is that they should make about 60 percent of what they would get as free agents on the open market. Thus, Choo’s implicit value would be $8.2 million. Does that really sound right?
Assuming that a win is worth about $5 million in this market, the Indians and agent Scott Boras agreed that Choo will be worth about 1.6 WAR. Given that an average MLB position player will be worth 2.0 WAR over the course of a full season, Choo’s employer and agent are implicitly saying that Choo is a below-average player.
Of course, that notion is ridiculous. Choo’s struggles in 2011 were largely due to his low (relative to his norm) .317 BABIP, meaning there was at least a little bit of bad luck involved. Moreover, he posted 6.5 bWAR in 2010 and averaged 6.3 bWAR per 162 games from 2008-10.
Both RotoChamp and Bill James project Choo to be significantly better than Boras and the Indians do in 2012. Not to mention that, even in his disappointing 2011, he was on pace to amass 2.7 fWAR over a full season—i.e., he was an above-average player.
If Choo repeats his 2010 season, his production will be worth over $30 million. A more modest, 4.0-WAR projection would make him worth $20 million. Even if he slips to his 2008 levels, when he missed 68 games, his performance would be worth about $17 million—more than twice what Boras and the Indians apparently think he’d get as a free agent.
But forget about WAR. Let’s use a more concrete example: Michael Cuddyer, who was one of the hottest names on the free agent market this winter. He’ll be 33 years old on Opening Day, and he has a career triple-slash of .272/.343/.451 (111 OPS+). He’s averaged 20 homers, 82 RBI, 86 runs, 7 steals, and 1.7 bWAR per 162 games.
Choo is more than three years younger than Cuddyer. He has a career triple-slash of .291/.384/.473 (133 OPS+). He’s tied with Cuddyer with 20 homers per 162 games, but has him beat with 91 RBI, 90 runs, 19 steals, and 5.4 bWAR per full season.
Choo got one year at (the equivalent of) $8.2 million. Cuddyer, who is older and until last year was a much worse baseball place, got three years at $10.5 million.
How about Jason Kubel? Played just about as well as Choo in 2011, if not slightly worse. His career numbers are about the same as Cuddyer’s, but his best seasons are further in the past. He just got a two-year, $15 million contract from the Diamondbacks, meaning his average annual value will be just about what Choo is apparently worth.
Yes, Cuddyer and Kubel’s contracts were overpays, but that isn’t the point. That Cuddyer is seen as more valuable than Choo is laughable, but it’s ridiculous that Choo would even be in the same salary neighborhood as Cuddyer and Kubel.
Choo is an above-average hitter and fielder in the prime of his career with the ceiling and track record of a superstar. Had you given me the choice last winter I’d have taken him over Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth for a long-term deal, and even after Choo’s disappointing campaign that decision would’ve looked pretty good right now. So why is he now seen as worth less than Michael Cuddyer?
I’m certainly not going to complain about my favorite team being able to easily afford one of its best players, and with a $4.9 million salary it’s not as though Choo will have trouble putting food on the table. But that even legendary mega-agent Scott Boras didn’t get his client the payday his production merits speaks to just how underappreciated Shin-Soo Choo really is.