Choo's stock rising with play for Reds in contract year
Veteran outfielder, pending free agent, likely to attract plenty of attention
CINCINNATI -- A revelation who has already exceeded high expectations, center fielder Shin-Soo Choo has been everything and more than the win-now Reds had hoped he'd be from the leadoff spot this season.
At the same time, Choo provides Reds fans with mixed emotions. While there is enjoyment and excitement about the present, there is also angst and concern for what might happen beyond the 2013 season. That's when Choo can become a free agent.
"I get asked the question a lot: 'Choo, where do you want to go and where do you want to play?'" said Choo, who was acquired by Cincinnati from the Indians in a three-team trade last offseason.
Through just more than a quarter of the season, Choo is batting .300 with a team-leading nine home runs, 19 RBIs and a Major League-leading 12 hit-by-pitches in 45 games. His .449 on-base percentage is second behind teammate Joey Votto in the National League, and it buries the .254 OBP Cincinnati got from various leadoff hitters in 2012.
"I think he's fit in real well," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "He's really become a great teammate that I think is well admired by his teammates. He's been just a big plus to our club. He is the lift we were looking for, offensively."
Choo, who turns 31 on July 13, has provided excellent production, not just for a surging 29-18 Reds team seeking to repeat as division champions of the NL Central and reach the World Series, but for Choo himself. It's the kind of year any player about to hit the open market would want.
It also means Choo, who is making $7.3 million this season, won't be a cheap re-sign. He is expected to be a headlining name among next winter's free-agent class.
In other words, Reds fans, enjoy Choo while he's around and don't take his time in Cincinnati for granted.
"I sit down with players and say, 'Look, these are your options,'" Choo's agent, Scott Boras, told the New York Times earlier this week. "I kept telling Choo: 'You're special. You're not going to be good every year; that's not how the game works. But the reality is you're special. Be patient, accumulate your record, and these are your choices.'"
The Reds knew all of this when sending center fielder Drew Stubbs to Cleveland and promising shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius to Arizona to acquire Choo with only one year left of club control.
Jocketty would be open to having Choo extend his stay beyond this season, but realizes the odds given the expected market.
"I hate to even address it," Jocketty told MLB.com. "We got him with the idea we would get him for the year and then try to develop [Billy] Hamilton to play next year. If we're in a position where we think we can sign Choo, it's a big bonus for us. Would we love to? Absolutely. But we have to really look and see where our financial revenues and financial projections of future revenues are. It's still a little early to do that."
Looking ahead, the Reds will be getting some money off the books heading into the winter. For example, pitcher Bronson Arroyo, in the final season of a three-year, $35 million deal that pays him $6.5 million in 2013, can become a free agent. Votto's salary will go from $19 million this season to $12 million in 2014 as his 10-year, $225 million contract extension signed last year kicks in.
Much of that freed up money is spoken for, however. There are several players with escalating salaries in their existing contracts -- like Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto. Others, like pitchers Homer Bailey and Mike Leake and outfielder Chris Heisey, can earn large raises through the arbitration process. The Reds' payroll was already a franchise record at a reported $106 million.
"There's not a lot to spare, I can tell you that," Jocketty said.
Choo was non-committal about his future plans but made it clear that he is seeking both professional and personal stability. While he is from Pusan, South Korea, Choo, his wife and three children reside in Buckeye, Ariz. -- a short distance from the Reds' player-development complex in Goodyear.
"I want to stay in the same area for a long time -- wherever it is," Choo said. "Kids need their dad. It's hard in the baseball season -- you spend six months away by yourself, and six months you get together in the offseason. I want to stay in one area. But I'm not thinking about it. I'm not thinking about teams or cities."
During the Reds' three-game series sweep of the Mets, Choo got a taste of the type of reception he'd get in New York -- the home of a large Korean population. He called the treatment he received "special."
But the Mets appear to have a way to go before becoming contenders again, and Choo values winning. He could have that, and personal satisfaction, in Cincinnati, where he is already happy and likes his teammates.
"I've learned a lot from Bruce and Joey," Choo said. "Those guys are superstar players. They have big contracts but still want to learn baseball and get better, too. I was surprised. Some players get a big contract and are bigger than the team. These guys want to win and want to help make it better. That's why this team is so good.
"I've said it many times. There are still four months left. I will focus every day on every at-bat and every pitch. That's all I can do."
If Choo does leave after the season, Jocketty believes it would still have been worth making the trade to get him -- even if for only one year.
"Especially if we get to where we need to be and hope to be," Jocketty said.