As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s starting right fielder: Shin-Soo Choo.
Background: Signed by the Seattle Mariners as an international free agent out of South Korea just after his 18th birthday, Choo, now 29, turned some heads in the minors and appeared on Baseball America‘s Top 100 prospects list in both 2003 and 2005. He came to the Indians in the 2006 Ben Broussard deal, which in retrospect was one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. He hit a game-winning home run against the Mariners in his Indians debut—a sign of what was to come.
Last year: The 2011 season was a rough one for Choo. After getting off to a slow start in April, he was busted for a DUI; his arrest haunted him when he was on the field while a thumb injury and a strained oblique conspired to make him miss almost half a season. He still managed to hit a respectable .259/.344/.390 (104 wRC+) with 8 homers, 36 RBI, 37 runs, 12 steals, and somewhere between 1.3 and 1.6 wins above replacement in just 85 games, but those were underwhelming numbers for one of the best outfielders in the game.
Key factor: Power. Choo’s plate discipline worsened a little bit last year and his BABIP was below his career mark, but the biggest reason he slipped in 2011 was that he wasn’t slugging the way he usually does. Choo averaged 24 home runs and 100 RBI per 162 games from 2008-10 but was on pace for just 15 home runs and 69 RBI over a full season last year. His .390 slugging percentage, .131 ISO, and .506 Power Factor were all below his par. His lack of pop might also explain the drop in his hit rate.
Given how dramatically Choo’s numbers changed between 2010 and 2011, it’s surprising how similar these projections are. The first three projections are virtually identical, and even with the ever-pessimistic ZIPS’ numbers the biggest difference is playing time. A year ago these numbers would have looked like a real lowball for Choo, but after last season they suggest he’s poised for a modest comeback.
Best-case scenario: What 2011? Choo puts last year behind him and picks up where he left off in 2009-10, when (by one measure) he was worth almost 13 wins above replacement. Choo finally earns an All-Star appearance (can you believe he’s never been selected to play in the Midsummer Classic?) and reclaims his place as the most underrated superstar in the game as he posts his third 20/20 season in four years.
Worst-case scenario: The injury bug strikes again before Choo has a chance to get his groove back. He and Grady Sizemore combine to spend a full season’s worth of games on the disabled list, and he’s not the Choo of old even when he’s on the field. His 20-homer power is a thing of the past and his hit rate settles on a new, lower equilibrium. He’s still at least average at every facet of the game, but he’s no longer good enough to be underrated.
Most likely scenario: Assuming he’s healthy and his mind is clear, I’d put him right around the non-ZIPS projection consensus. There’s definitely a chance that he regains his MVP-caliber form, but for a player who turns 30 this year coming off a disappointing season it’s better to temper expectations. He’ll still a tremendous asset to the team, but he won’t be a star.