Between the end of the World Series and the start of the Winter Meetings, there is a month-long lull, un which, generally, nothing that is both baseball-related and even remotely interesting occurs. Today, the Nationals released Mauro Gomez, a career minor-leaguer who played a grand total of zero games in the Nationals’ system, and this was the biggest news of the day for Nats fans. Needless to say, there is almost nothing going on.
Boredom often leads to idle speculation — as they say, idle hands are the devil’s playthings. And eventually, my brain could take the enduring dullness no longer, and I began to speculate wildly about the Nats’ outfield situation. We have heard several stories about the Nats’ interest in Jacoby Ellsbury, and their willingness to listen on deals for Denard Span. But I have another idea, another outfielder, leadoff hitter, and Scott Boras client who would fit perfectly into the Nats’ future plans — Shin Soo Choo.
Choo is an incredibly undervalued player, even by today’s statistically-oriented front offices. He had a remarkable .423 on-base percentage last year, and while it was a career-high, it was not a fluke. He has a career OBP of .389, a number that ranks him 9th among all active players. His career triple-slash of .288/.389/.465 is an improvement over Ellsbury’s .297/.350/.439. As good as Choo has been offensively, he gets even better out of the leadoff spot; career, he has it .300/.413/.484, 10% better (by tOPS+) than his statistics everywhere else in the lineup. While Choo is not close to the threat on the bases the Ellsbury is, he is not bereft of speed, stealing a team-leading 20 bases with the Reds last year. Additionally, Choo has been more durable than Ellsbury, even though Choo is a year older than Ellsbury; over the last 5 years, Choo has averaged 139 games played a year to Ellsbury’s 107.
This isn’t to say Ellsbury isn’t valuable; in fact, Ellsbury was worth 5.8 wins above replacement (according to Baseball Reference), while Choo was worth only 4.2. But a great deal of Ellsbury’s value is derived from his superior defense, while Choo’s defensive numbers were hampered by the fact that he was playing out of position in centerfield. The life of a long-term contract will likely see a diminishing of Ellsbury’s defensive skills; conversely, Choo’s talents (namely, the ability to take walks) tend to age better than defensive skills. And Choo’s defensive numbers will look much better once he shifts back to a corner outfield spot.
Here’s where astute readers might say something like, “But the Nationals don’t have any corner outfield spots available! Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper are locked into those spots for the next gazillion years!” And that shrieking strawman would be right — Werth and Harper are going to be Nationals for the foreseeable future. But I have an idea, and it’s a pretty crazy one; move Werth to first base. This would benefit the team greatly because it would keep the increasingly injury-prone Werth out of the dangerous outfield. There was a time last year when the nearly-35-year old Werth seemed unable to go more than 3 games without pulling a hamstring trying to chase down a long fly ball. Werth’s bat is an asset, and he needs to be in the lineup as often as possible. Keeping him out of the outfield (where he had been well below-average defensively in 2011 and 2012 before posting league-average numbers in 2013) will be the best way to ensure his health.
Moving Werth to first, where he would likely be a solid defensive player (he’s played a total of 1 inning there in his big league career, but is 6’5″ and athletic, so he should be at least adequate), allows the Nats to stick Choo in left, and move Harper to right. It also allows them to trade the struggling Adam LaRoche for spare parts; Jon Morosi says he has drawn interest from AL teams as a 1B/DH. A lineup that substitutes Choo for LaRoche would likely look like this:
Shin-Soo Choo LF (L), 143 OPS+ last year
Ryan Zimmerman 3B, 121 OPS+
Bryce Harper RF (L), 133 OPS+
Jayson Werth 1B, 154 OPS+
Ian Desmond SS, 114 OPS+
Wilson Ramos C, 111 OPS+
Denard Span CF (L), 94 OPS+
Anthony Rendon 2B, 99 OPS+
That lineup is balanced, defensively strong, and offensively potent. And while it would cost a pretty penny to sign Choo — MLBTradeRumors predicts a 6 year, $100 million contract, and he is said to be seeking a contract that exceeds the Werth deal — he would be a statement acquisition for a team that, according to ownership, has money to spend. To be clear, this is pure speculation, not an informed prediction. But signing Choo could be the last piece of the puzzle for a Nationals team that is looking to give this town something it hasn’t seen in 90 years — a championship.