T.R.’s Memoirs: Shin-Shoo Choo was all Rangers should have expected him to be
(AP photo/David Zalubowski)
Editor’s note: Former Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is playing in Korea and has said the 2024 season will be his last. Former Rangers beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at Choo’s time in Texas.
Shin-Soo Choo spent seven years in Texas. During that time, it seemed like Choo was either on the injured list or on the trading block.
Or having to listen to media savants opine as to how much his seven-year, $130 million contract was a burden to the Rangers. That he made it through seven years without leaving Texas or taking leave of his sanity after all the speculation might be considered a minor miracle.
While it’s doubtful that the term “swap of bad contracts” was invented for Choo’s situation, that seemed to be a favorite for many when writing about him. Most memorable was the 2015 winter meetings when the hot rumor was Choo going to Arizona for pitcher Zack Greinke in a swap of bad contracts.
That didn’t get any farther than the other myriad trade rumors surrounding Choo not long after his arrival in Texas. During the summer of 2015, his second year in Texas, a prominent national writer wrote it almost as a foregone conclusion that the Rangers were going to trade Choo in the winter.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t.
Maybe they tried, maybe they didn’t. No doubt the contract was a significant impediment to any deal going down. Maybe they didn’t try hard enough or didn’t want to try at all, depending on the winter, the market and the state of the Rangers’ outfield. Or where he stood on his health.
But seemingly against all odds, Choo remained for all seven years, and his time in Texas can be summed up fairly succinctly as thus …
Choo was everything the Rangers expected him to be or should have expected him to be. As a free agent, he was neither a bust or a game-changer. He was a professional hitter, a decent but unspectacular outfielder, a great teammate respected and well-liked by just about everybody in the clubhouse.
The first guy in the clubhouse almost every morning in spring training. The kind of player any championship team would need, and he did help the Rangers win division titles in 2015 and ’16.
His departure from Texas was quite unceremonious, coming after the pandemic-stricken 2020 season. Choo’s seven-year deal was up with the Rangers, and he slipped away almost without notice.
He has spent the past three years playing for SSG Landers the Korea Baseball Organization. Last week he announced he will retire after next season.
“I decided it was time for me to put a period on my baseball journey that started in 2001,” Choo said in a team statement. “Since the 2024 season will be my last one, I want to show my gratitude to baseball fans, both at home and on the road, and give them long-lasting memories throughout the year.”
Hopefully he will get the appropriate sendoff in Korea that he didn’t get in Texas. His last public event in Texas was when he was honored as the 2019 Harold McKinney Good Guy winner by the media covering the team.
Top prospect from Seattle
It has been over 23 years since Choo was first signed by the Mariners as a free agent out of South Korea on Aug. 13, 2000, for a $1.35 million signing bonus. In 2006, after just 14 games at the big-league level, he was traded to Cleveland for first baseman Ben Broussard.
Yeah, that Ben Broussard, the Rangers’ Opening Day first baseman in 2008 who was hitting .159 on May 16 when he was released. By that time, Choo had established himself as an everyday outfielder for the Guardians. Choo stayed there until Dec. 11, 2012, when — one year before becoming a free agent — he was traded to the Reds. He spent one year in Cincinnati before he went onto the open market represented by agent Scott Boras.
By that time, Choo had established his reputation as a player. Over a six-year period from 2008-13, Choo hit .290 with a .392 on-base percentage and a .469 slugging percentage. He averaged 17 home runs and 17 stolen bases per season. Plus 118 strikeouts and 71 walks. Defensively, he could cover the ground — the Reds used him in center field — with a decent arm.
“You couldn’t ask for a better player on your team,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said.
“We had some sense … a good hitter, with a good approach to the plate and a strong defender,” Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti said. “But what we didn’t fully appreciate at the time was his work ethic and how driven he is to succeed.”
The Rangers won 91 games in 2013 but were clearly in need of some changes. They had no intention of re-signing outfielder Nelson Cruz, who had missed 50 ganes that summer while serving a suspension for being caught up in a South Florida performance-enhancing drug scandal.
The Rangers made one blockbuster trade when they sent second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for first baseman Prince Fielder. The deal presumably gave the Rangers a middle-of-order bat in exchange for a leadoff hitter. The Rangers saw Choo as the replacement for Kinsler, at least in the lineup. Instead of a lineup laden with sheer power, the Rangers wanted a versatile hitter who could bat anywhere in the lineup with a combination of speed, power and on-base ability.
It was all part of the plan to revamp the lineup, but …
Jurickson Profar was supposed to replace Kinsler at second base, only he missed two years because of shoulder injuries. Plus, Fielder only played 43 games in 2014 because of a neck injury.
Oh yeah, this was a lousy time for the Rangers. If you were going to rank the worst years in Rangers history, 2014 would be close to the top, right up there with 2002.
Choo wouldn’t argue with that. He had left elbow issues in spring training and a left ankle injury when he stepped on first base awkwardly on April 21 in Oakland. Choo tried playing through it while the Rangers struggled to a 67-95 record. His slash line of .240/.340/.374 was far below what the Rangers expected from a guy who slashed .285/.423/.462 during his year in Cincinnati.
The injuries were not the only issue. Choo also admitted to putting way too much pressure on himself because of the contract. It would take some time and considerable encouragement/counseling from his wife, Won Mi Ha, before he overcame that self-induced pressure.
Choo comes alive
Choo came to spring training healthy in 2015 but was still a big disappointment at the plate. At the All-Star break, he was hitting .222/.305/.384. The Rangers were 42-46 and six games behind the Angels in the American League West. Choo was on the bench for the first game after the All-Star break and then batted eighth in the next game.
“The confidence in his own game is what I think he needs,” manager Jeff Banister said. “Choo still possesses all the qualities of a terrific player at the major-league level.”
Choo suddenly showed it in a big-time way with the first real indication being when he hit for the cycle July 21 against the Rockies. In the second half of the 2015 season, Choo was as good as any player in the majors. He played in 69 games and hit .343 with 56 runs scored, 11 home runs and 44 RBIs. His .455 on-base and .561 slugging gave him an OPS of 1.016 after the break. With Choo leading the way — he was A.L. Player of the Month for September — the Rangers roared back and won the West on the final day of the season.
“I see a guy who has a lot of pride that felt he had an obligation to the club, both the organization and the team,” general manager Jon Daniels said at the time. “I saw a guy who wanted to reward people who believed in him. You saw what kind of player he can be, maybe the best in the league.”
The Rangers didn’t see it in 2016. Choo just couldn’t stay healthy, going on the injured list four times because a strained right calf, strained left hamstring, lower back inflammation and a fractured left forearm after getting hit by a pitch Aug. 15. That was supposed to be a season-ending injury, but Choo did get back for the final three games and the division series against the Blue Jays.
Following that injury-plagued season, Choo started seeing more time at designated hitter, and that may have kept healthy because he was done with the injured list for the next three years. Over three seasons in 2017-19, Choo played 217 games in the outfield and 209 at designated hitter.
Offensively, he performed exactly as the Rangers should have expected. During those three seasons, Choo hit .263 with a .368 on-base percentage and a .437 slugging percentage. He also averaged 91 runs, 22 home runs and 67 RBIs. In 2018, he was selected to the All-Star Game for the first and only time in his career and was the Rangers Player of the Year.
Choo, at age 37, went to spring training in 2020 in the final year of his contract. He still harbored hopes of continuing to play but also admitted to feeling the pull of staying at home with his wife and three children. There was some sentiment among the Rangers for keeping him beyond 2020.
“I truly value the person and what he can do, and I still think there is a lot there physically based on the way he prepares himself,” manager Chris Woodward said. “I actually expect him to have a very productive year … and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t pursue bringing him back.”
All that changed when COVID shut down the game for four months. When the Rangers got back on the field in late July, nobody had any clue about anybody’s future. The Rangers ended up playing 60 games, and Choo played in 32 before suffering a bruised right wrist diving into home plate Sept. 7.
Not wanting that to be the end, Choo worked hard to get back into the lineup. Finally, in the last game of the season, Choo was listed in the starting lineup, leading off at designated hitter against the Astros and pitcher Chase de Jong. There were no fans in attendance per MLB COVID protocol that year but unbeknownst to Choo, his wife and three children were allowed to be there along with a couple thousand cardboard cutouts of dummy fans.
Choo, in the bottom of the first, dropped a bunt down the third baseline and beat it out for a hit. Willie Calhoun then went in to pinch-run for him, and Choo was greeted with hugs from his teammates and coaches when he returned to the dugout.
“That was a really big moment for me,” Choo said. “I’ll never forget today.”
It was his last time in a Rangers uniform. The Rangers, after a 22-38 season and clearly in need of a youth movement, did not pursue him that winter. Other clubs showed some interest, but Choo opted to play in Korea.
He has been there three years and has one more left in him. Choo has stayed relatively healthy in Korea and enjoys playing in front of his parents, friends and fellow countrymen. He doesn’t have to worry about living up to a mega-contract or getting traded anymore.
He is Shin-Soo Choo, and when he was on the field playing the way he was capable of playing …
That should have been good enough for anybody no matter what the contract.