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How Shin-Soo Choo Free-Agent Deal Impacts 2014 AL Pennant Race

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How Shin-Soo Choo Free-Agent Deal Impacts 2014 AL Pennant Race
Getty Images/Hunter Martin

Remember the days when the Texas Rangers had one of the scariest offenses in the American League?

Thanks to their latest addition, it looks like a given they'll have one of those once again in 2014—and the American League pennant race will be all the more interesting because of it.

If you haven't yet heard the latest, the top player left on the free-agent market is going to be a Ranger. As Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com first reported, 31-year-old outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is joining Texas on a seven-year, $130 million deal.

Choo's agent, Scott Boras, told gathered reporters (h/t ESPN) during the winter meetings that his client brought a lot to the table.

"Shin-Soo Choo is a good fit for rebuilding teams and 'now' teams," Boras said. "He's a teacher and a great example for both the younger players and the veterans. He's like frosting. He fills a lot of cakes."

Choo fits with the Rangers in left field and at the top of their lineup in the leadoff spot, and he promises to be a significant upgrade for the latter. While the Rangers' leadoff spot was hardly a weak spot in 2013, it should be a major strength in 2014.

For perspective, here's a comparison of what the Rangers got out of their leadoff spot in 2013 and what Choo has done as a leadoff hitter over the last two seasons:

Leadoff Battle: Choo vs. Rangers
Split PA AVG OBP SLUG OPS
2013 Rangers 762 .266 .336 .386 .723
Choo, 2012-2013 1122 .301 .415 .486 .901

Baseball-Reference.com

It was mainly Ian Kinsler handling leadoff duties for the Rangers in 2013, and he did a fine job, with a .355 OBP over 443 plate appearances. But Kinsler is in Detroit now, and nobody will miss him all that much if Choo lives up to what he's done as a leadoff man over the last two seasons.

The Rangers also have to like that Choo brings some left-handed power as well, as that's something they sorely lacked in 2013.

With Josh Hamilton in their lineup in 2012, the Rangers got a .226 Isolated Power out of their left-handed hitters. That was tops in MLB. With Hamilton gone in 2013, Rangers lefties combined for just a .144 ISO. That put them in the middle of the pack.

Choo has hit 37 home runs with a .168 ISO over the last two seasons. That's not exactly Hamilton-esque pop, but he's not the only new lefty hitter the Rangers have to replace what was lost when Hamilton bolted for Anaheim.

Prince Fielder's in the mix as well, of course. Steamer projections have him down as a good bet for more power than the .178 ISO and 25 homers he produced for the Detroit Tigers in 2013. Per FanGraphs, Steamer has Fielder producing a .212 ISO and 27 home runs in 2014.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With Choo in the leadoff spot and Fielder in the middle, there's no denying the Rangers have themselves a fine-looking lineup:

Projected Rangers 2014 Lineup
Spot POS Bats Player
1 LF L Shin-Soo Choo
2 SS R Elvis Andrus
3 3B R Adrian Beltre
4 1B L Prince Fielder
5 RF R Alex Rios
6 DH L Mitch Moreland
7 2B S Jurickson Profar
8 C R Geovany Soto
9 CF L/R Leonys Martin/Michael Choice

Bleacher Report

After leading the American League in runs scored in 2012, the Rangers plummeted to seventh in 2013. It was the first time they'd finished outside the top four since 2009.

Just a hunch: That won't be happening again. The 2014 season should see the Rangers return to their perch as one of the Junior Circuit's elite run-scoring teams.

The catch, however, is that the extra offense looks like less of a luxury and more of a necessity. While Texas general manager Jon Daniels has upgraded his offense this winter, he's done so while neglecting his pitching staff.

Statistically, the pitching in Texas was just fine in 2013. By FanGraphs' WAR, the Rangers had the second-most productive pitching in MLB and the second-most productive starting pitching to boot.

On the starting pitching front, though, a huge amount of that production was coming from the top:

Rangers Starters in 2013
Split IP ERA WAR
Yu Darvish 209.2 2.83 5.0
Derek Holland 213.0 3.42 4.8
Everyone else 549.0 4.66 6.3

FanGraphs

The best starter the Rangers had after Darvish and Holland was Martin Perez, who finished with a 1.6 WAR that looked less impressive than his 3.62 ERA. Steamer doesn't see much improvement in the cards for Perez in 2014, as a modest 1.8 WAR is projected for him.

The top WAR projected for any Rangers starter after Darvish and Holland is for Matt Harrison at 2.3. That's based on if he makes 29 starts, which is assuming a lot given that Harrison had two back surgeries and one shoulder surgery in 2013.

So barring any additional moves, the Rangers are probably looking at having a top-heavy starting rotation all over again in 2014. Factor in that Joe Nathan, he of the 1.39 ERA in 2013, will be absent from the bullpen, and their pitching staff will need a few things to go right to maintain its 2013 level of production.

Looking at what the Rangers have on paper, I'd say the total package does look better than what the they had last season. Rather than a 91-win team, they look like they could end up in the 92-to-95 range in 2014.

But no more than that. The question marks on the mound will keep the Rangers' win total in check. It also has to be acknowledged that, for all the runs they're going to add with their bats, Choo and Fielder are likely to take a few away with their gloves.

Another thing that has to be acknowledged is that the division around the Rangers is set to be much deeper than it was in 2013.

The Seattle Mariners have added Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart to a lineup that sorely needed some impact bats. On top of that, they have some high-upside youngsters in the mix for 2014 in Mike Zunino, Brad Miller and Taijuan Walker. Seattle should be a better team.

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The Los Angeles Angels added some much-needed pitching depth in Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, as well as a new third baseman in David Freese. If Mike Trout continues to be amazing and Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols get some life breathed into them, the Angels should also be a better team.

The Houston Astros, meanwhile, have added a needed innings-eater in Scott Feldman and a quality center fielder in Dexter Fowler. At the least, they won't be any worse in 2014.

Then there are the Oakland A's. They've been swapping bodies around all winter, and it's largely been for the better. Scott Kazmir is a solid replacement for Bartolo Colon, and other key arrivals include defense specialist Craig Gentry and underrated setup man Luke Gregerson. 

The Rangers certainly ensured that they're going to be a good team in 2014 with their signing of Choo, but they shouldn't be mistaken for a superpower that's going to run away with the AL West. In addition to them still having their weaknesses, the division is too deep—to a point where it might even be the deepest division in the American League.

We can say this, though: There is something to be said about the value of playing in a deep division.

Just take a look at what happened in 2013. The Boston Red Sox emerged victorious from easily the deepest American League division in the AL East. The St. Louis Cardinals emerged victorious from easily the deepest National League division in the NL Central. On their way to the World Series, they certainly looked like the two most battle-hardened clubs baseball had to offer.

The rest of the American League should keep a watchful eye on the Rangers and the rest of the AL West in 2014. Whether it's them or somebody else, whoever emerges from that division is going to be a tough customer in October.

 

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

 

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