Is Masahiro Tanaka or Shin-Soo Choo the Smarter Texas Rangers Splash?

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 18, 2013

TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 12:  Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka # 17 of Japan pitches in the fifth inning during the World Baseball Classic Second Round Pool 1 game between Japan and the Netherlands at Tokyo Dome on March 12, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Pop quiz, hot shot. You're Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. You're looking to make a splash. Masahiro Tanaka and Shin-Soo Choo are on your radar.

What do you do?

You would prefer Tanaka, right? Same here.

We don't know for certain that Tanaka and Choo are the only two players Daniels is coveting. This tweet from Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports just makes it sound like they are:

Regarding Tanaka, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com heard from one executive that there's little doubt the 25-year-old right-hander will sign for over $100 million if the Rakuten Golden Eagles choose to post him. That's in addition to the max transfer fee of $20 million set down by the new posting system.

Choo is probably going to be more expensive. According to a report from Jeff Passan, the 31-year-old outfielder turned down a seven-year, $140 million offer from the New York Yankees. Whereas it will likely cost $120-140 million to sign Tanaka, it will likely take at least $140 million to sign Choo.

So logically, if the Rangers are going to spend more money on Choo, it better be because they need him more than they need Tanaka.

And I'm not convinced that they do.

Choo looked like a prime option for the Rangers last month, when I declared him to be a better fit than Jacoby Ellsbury due to how he would upgrade the leadoff spot, provide some needed left-handed power and fit nicely in left field.

Two of those needs have since been filled. The Rangers acquired an abundance of lefty power when they traded for Prince Fielder. When they acquired Michael Choice from the Oakland A's, they acquired a guy who's penciled in to be their everyday left fielder.

Signing Choo would force Choice into a part-time role, presumably as a righty platoon partner for Leonys Martin and a fourth outfielder. In which case, yeah, the Rangers might as well have held on to Craig Gentry.

So it comes down to the leadoff spot. Choo, he of the .432 leadoff OBP in 2013, was a leadoff upgrade before the Rangers traded primary leadoff man Ian Kinsler. He was largely responsible for the .336 leadoff OBP the Rangers enjoyed in 2013. According to ESPN.com, that was 10th-best in the majors.

Texas' best in-house leadoff candidate is Elvis Andrus, who posted a .299 OBP batting leadoff in 2013. Not very encouraging, that.

But let's stop right there. Andrus may have struggled batting leadoff in 2013, sure, but it all went down during his brutal first half. He just wasn't hitting, period.

It's better if we consider his career splits:

Elvis Andrus Career Splits
SplitPAOBP
Batting 1st820.340
Everywhere Else2469.339
Baseball-Reference.com

Basically, Andrus is who he is no matter where he's hitting. 

The Steamer projections (via FanGraphs) anticipate Andrus continuing to be himself in 2014 with a .274/.341/.363 batting line. If those numbers are produced out of the Rangers' leadoff spot, it will be about as productive as it was in 2013.

Since the Rangers don't need Choo in a corner outfield spot or to provide lefty power as much as they previously did, their interest in him boils down to whether extra on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot is worth it. And while that would be a nice thing to have, a $140-plus million price is an awful lot to pay for it.

Now then, let's consider how Tanaka would fit into the equation.

Statistically, the Rangers enjoyed excellent starting pitching in 2013. By FanGraphs FIP-based version of the stat, Texas starters ranked second in MLB in WAR.

The catch is that it was the Yu Darvish and Derek Holland Show. After them, things were rocky:

Rangers Starters in 2013
PlayerGSIPWAR
Yu Darvish32209.25.0
Derek Holland33213.04.8
Martin Perez20124.11.6
Matt Garza1384.11.3
Nick Tepesch1788.21.2
Alexi Ogando1897.21.1
Justin Grimm1789.00.6
Travis Blackley314.10.3
Josh Lindblom527.00.3
Matt Harrison210.20
Ross Wolf313.0-0.1
FanGraphs

The Rangers were aggressive in pursuing Matt Garza at the trade deadline because he fit the mold of the No. 3 starter they lacked. He ended up being just OK at the job, and is now a free agent.

If we look to Steamer projections, it's not a given that the Rangers are going to have a No. 3 starter emerge from their in-house options in 2014:

Steamer Projections for Rangers Starters
PlayerGSIPWAR
Yu Darvish30192.05.0
Derek Holland28173.03.1
Matt Harrison29173.02.3
Martin Perez27153.01.8
Alexi Ogando27153.01.6
Nick Tepesch20115.01.5
FanGraphs

Matt Harrison's projection stands out, but I take issue with it. A projection of 29 starts is overly generous given that he's coming off a season that saw him undergo two back surgeries and surgery to repair Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

With Harrison, hoping for the best while planning for the worst is the wisest course of action for the Rangers. Not relying on him to be a solid No. 3 starter would be part of that.

There's a case to be made for Martin Perez as the Rangers' top No. 3 candidate. But his modest WAR projection is valid, as he's more of a pitch-to-contact guy. That's not a good way to please FIP, and it's hard for a pitcher to outperform his FIP when he's pitching in Texas half the time.

If the Rangers were to sign Tanaka, on the other hand, they'd be signing not only a solid No. 3, but a guy who has the potential to be a No. 2 or even a co-ace alongside Darvish.

As far as his NPB stats are concerned, Tanaka would be the best thing to come out of Japan since Darvish himself. In seven seasons with Rakuten, Tanaka has compiled a 2.30 ERA. His ERA has been under 2.00 in each of the last three seasons.

Masahiro Tanaka NPB Stats, 2011-2013
YearGSIPCGSHOK%BB%K/BBERA
201127226.114627.83.18.91.27
201222173.08324.32.78.91.87
201327212.08222.33.95.71.27
Baseball-Reference.com

More important than his NPB stats, however, is the fact that Tanaka has the style and the stuff to succeed in MLB.

If you want a full take on this topic, I recommend reading another piece of mine from November. The short version is that Tanaka is an elite strike-thrower with a low-90s fastball, an above-average slider and a splitter that Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com said is considered by some scouts to be the best in the world.

Yeah. Not NPB. The world.

A pitcher coming over from Japan and succeeding with a splitter as a primary weapon is nothing we haven't seen before. Hideo Nomo had a splitter. So did Kazuhiro Sasaki. More recently, Hisahi Iwakuma, Hiroki Kuroda and Koji Uehara have done wonders with their splitters.

"You can't really say for sure, but he's got the stuff, the ability and the mentality to be as good as anybody who's gone over," said one scout to Steve Wulf and Jason Coskrey of ESPN.com.

Or, at the least, a No. 3 starter.

Which, in the case of the Rangers' rotation, would be a key addition. They need Tanaka for their rotation more than they need Choo for their lineup, and that's not the only incentive they have to target him.

In addition to Tanaka likely being cheaper, the Rangers would get more prime seasons out of him than they would out of Choo. With him already through his age-30 season, Choo's prime is running out. With his age-25 season still to come, Tanaka's in the thick of his prime.

Let's grant that Daniels can't really make a wrong choice between these two players. Either would be a fine addition. But given the circumstances, Daniels has the right idea in doing his homework on Tanaka.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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