By Marc Normandin
Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury, the stars of this year's free-agent market, have already signed on with new teams on long-term, lucractive deals. Second-tier free agents like Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson, Mike Napoli and more have also ended the free-agent portion of their off-season by inking new deals. That leaves Shin-Soo Choo as one of the last major free agents available, and arguably the most significant of them all. Now, his agent Scott Boras has all winter -- if he wants it -- to find Choo's new home.
What will it take to bring Choo into the fold? The only absolute known is that a draft pick must be surrendered, as the Reds, Choo's former club, submitted the qualifying offer, securing compensation upon his departure. As for the rest, we have been told to a degree by Boras himself. The best agent in sports has not been shy about his desire to not only top Carl Crawford's 2011 contract by way of Ellsbury -- a goal the duo succeeded at, thanks to the Yankees -- but to topple Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million 2011 agreement as well.
The open question coming into the off-season, specifically the winter meetings, was whether front offices would play ball with Boras' dream scenario. Early indications are that Boras and Choo will both be very happy men, as soon as they choose to sign. USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported on Wednesday, the third day of the meetings, that it would take $140 million over seven years to get Choo, per a general manager who was negotiating with Boras. Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan reported later that day that the "general sense" among baseball teams was that the first front office to crack and offer Choo eight years would win his hand in free agent marriage. According to FOX Sports' Jon Morosi, Boras already has offers in hand, and that Choo is discussing his options with his wife -- things are getting serious.
Who could be giving him an offer, though? The Mariners were reported to be in on Choo, with the New York Post's Joel Sherman saying they were one of the "lead dogs" alongside the Rangers. The acquisition of both Corey Hart and Logan Morrison might have pushed them out of that market, however, not due to cost, but simply because there are only so many roster spots available. Should they move Justin Smoak in a trade for pitching, allowing them to shuffle Morrison and Hart between first and designated hitter, then it's a different story. That could all happen in a flash, but for now, assume they're out.
The Rangers might have an offer in for Choo, but it's not for seven years -- given what we know (or at least what we think we know), that won't cut it, at least not at this early stage. Boras is a patient man, and will wait for the optimal offer. Sometimes, that comes early, such as when the Nationals plunked down $126 million for Werth, or the Yankees promised Ellsbury $153 million plus options. If Choo had such an offer already, he likely would have taken it.
The lack of such an offer now doesn't mean he'll never get one, either. Remember the 2011-2012 off-season? Do you recall all of the questions surrounding Prince Fielder, about how Boras might have finally overplayed his hand, and that Fielder would need to take a short-term deal with a lofty average annual value, because this time things would be different, no one would crack, no one would give in? On Jan. 26, 2012, that all went out the window, with Fielder signing a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers.
Doubting Boras is generally futile.
This is especially true when the talent in question is as immense as Choo. He wasn't, and arguably still is not, a household name, but his numbers sure are. Choo ranks 12th in the majors in OPS+ since 2008, minimum 3,000 plate appearances, directly behind David Ortiz, while ahead of players you hear far more about far more often in Evan Longoria, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Josh Hamilton, Hanley Ramirez, and, wait for it: $240 million man Robinson Cano. The fact he's coming off of a great season in which he batted .285/.423/.462 and earned over four wins above replacement in spite of playing poor defense out of position in center field will help as well. If a club is signing Choo to be a corner outfielder, he's likely to be more valuable than he was in 2013, simply because he's a more natural fit there, and his bat can absolutely handle even the rigors of right.
He'll be 31 in 2014, but that's actually a year younger than Werth was in his first year with the Nationals. With one exception, Choo has been on the field for at least 144 games in every season since becoming a full-time player. On-base percentages like his, especially coupled with power and the ability to make consistent, quality contact, are such a rarity on the open market that someone cannot help but pay him what he asks for, or something approximating it, because it's the only way to acquire that level of talent short of finding it yourself in the draft or internationally.
So, we know Choo is great. We know Boras is great. Choo is going to get his money, but from where? The Rangers appear to be the safest answer out there, as they need a bat to replace Nelson Cruz, and with Leonys Martin in center and Alex Rios in right, can slot Choo into the simplest defensive position in the outfield that also happens to be the one with the lowest offensive threshold for competence: That's just asking for huge value out of Choo. The Mariners are something of a wild card, as they could still shift players around, and are not quite finished building a core around their new Cano-shaped toy. The Yankees would likely be players if not for the luxury tax, but who knows: if Alex Rodriguez's 211-game suspension is upheld, or at least the 2014 portion of it is, New York suddenly has a whole lot of money to play with. The Tigers might jump in late in the same way they did with Fielder, pushing the newly acquired Rajai Davis into a fourth outfielder role, but much of that might depend on how negotiations with Max Scherzer -- for trade or extension -- go.
We're basically left with the Rangers, and they must know it to be true to a point, considering they haven't hit Boras' seven-year demand yet. With no one else an obvious, perfect fit, they can likely afford to sit back and see how things unfurl, especially since they have the flexibility to improve their offer should it come to that. With the improvements the A's are making, the slow rebuild of a still-dangerous Angels lineup occurring, and the Mariners finally remembering that they have money to spend, Choo might be someone the Rangers can't afford to let go. They might realize it before the meetings conclude, or maybe weeks later, but at this point, both the Rangers and Choo will likely get what they want.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.