When the M's traded Shin-Soo Choo for a platoon DH

Jared Wickerham

Within mere seconds of the news breaking about Shin-Soo Choo's new seven-year, $130-million contract with the Rangers, of course the tweets were flying. One thing I noticed: some really smart people think it's a good deal for the Rangers, and some other really smart people think it isn't; in the long term, anyway. Everybody thinks it makes the Rangers better in the short term. I suppose I lean slightly toward the isn't, mostly because Choo's talents are deep, but not broad. He doesn't hit left-handed pitchers, and he doesn't play well in the outfield. He's also 31. So nobody should be particularly shocked if Choo's earning $20 million as a platoon DH in 2018 ... with two more years on his contract after that.*

* Oh, except for one little problem: Prince Fielder is also signed through 2020, and he'll also be in line for the lefty-hitting half of a DH platoon in a few years. If Ron Washington's not dying his hair already, he will be in a few years.

But reasonable people disagree about this, and we have the luxury of time (and irrelevance, as the deal's done and now we'll just sit back and watch for a while). What piqued my interest was this tweet:

Why, yes. Yes I do. What I don't remember is what I thought about it then. It's possible that I didn't think about it much at all; Choo was 24 and still toiling in the minors.

Today, we know it was a terrible move.

Well, just about as terrible as a move can be these days. Since the advent of free agency, the downside of trading a young player, however talented, is limited by his ability to gain free agency after six full seasons in the majors. When the Cubs traded Lou Brock for a broken-down Ernie Broglio, they essentially gave up more than 15 years of a Hall of Famer's career. When the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth, same thing (but incalculably worse).

Oddly, I can't find anything I wrote about the deal at the time. Odder still, I can't find anything that Dave Cameron wrote about the deal at the time. I did find what Christina Kahrl, then with Baseball Prospectus, wrote about about the deal at the time:

Setting aside my frustration that the Mariners wouldn't give Choo a clean shot at a job, when they could have done that and simply offed Everett weeks ago, I guess I understand the motivation here. The problem is that they've now dealt another top prospect to get the other half of a DH platoon in place, and while I like Broussard well enough, and like the fact that the Mariners recognize that the division's wide open and flags fly forever and all that, they've given up an awful lot to get bats that don't significantly improve their chances as much as they just paper over last winter's mistakes. Broussard comes over hitting .322/.363/.523, and while that's outstanding, it's also well into the higher ranges of his predicted performance, and betting on him staying in this range when so much of his performance seems to be the product of getting a lot of breaks on putting a lot more balls in play is a bit of a wishcast if you ask me.

--snip--

In short, while adding Broussard is a worthwhile move considering the club's strange reluctance to use Choo, and because he'll be an instant upgrade on Everett, it's an expensive pickup fraught with a large potential to disappoint, and it doesn't fix this club's every problem. While reaching the playoffs as the AL West champ is a realizable goal, it's also worth asking if anybody would favor the Mariners over any other team in the AL playoff picture. Almost certainly not, at which point I begin to suspect that this move is just as much about achieving a better measure of job security as it is chasing a tri-pennant.

The morning of the trade in late July, the Mariners were in fourth (last) place, but only three games behind the first-place Angels. All three A.L. West clubs were right around .500, and all four had run differentials right around zero. I don't have third-order wins handy; based just on those numbers above, the Mariners' chances for the division title were roughly 1-in-5. Replacing Everett with the Broussard/Peréz platoon might have pushed that chance to 1-in-4 ... but almost certainly didn't. It was probably like an improvement from 1-in-5.6 to 1-in-5.2 or something. Let's call it 1-in-5. How many years of a Grade B prospect would you give up for a 1-in-5 chance for a tri-pennant?

And here's MLB Trade Rumors, which played up the Mariners' new DH action, roundly expected to be highly improved after nearly half a season of Carl Everett getting regular duty:

Ben Broussard was reunited with his former platoonmate Eduardo Perez today. He was dealt to the Mariners for outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. Broussard and Perez will combine to make a lethal combo, just as they did at first base for Cleveland.

More teams ought to assemble this sort of sweet platoon. The combined efforts of Broussard and Perez this season come out to a .316/.358/.550 line, including 22 HR and 63 RBI. The .908 OPS is roughly equivalent to what Carlos Lee has done this season. The difference is that Broussard and Perez, or as I like to call them, Brourez, take up two roster spots and make $4.2MM less...

Anyway, the decision to ditch Carl Everett and get a decent DH in there was long overdue. And Mark Shapiro snagged a well-rounded 24-year-old prospect in Choo.

Well, it did seem like a sweet platoon. Or at least semi-sweet. Especially if you look at Broussard and Peréz in just that way. It wouldn't have seemed quite so sweet if you'd looked at their career statistics, which were just fair. But what NOBODY could have predicted is what happened after they joined the Mariners. After combining to give the Indians so much, Broussard and Peréz combined for a sour .223/.290/.363 line with the M's. In fairness to Broussard, Peréz was the real culprit, hitting just one home run in 102 plate appearances. But Broussard wasn't good, either. He wasn't good at all.

What did baseball think about Choo? Here's a bit of Baseball America's take, before that 2006 season:

A natural right fielder, he moved to left in 2005 because of Ichiro's presence in Seattle. Scouts from other organizations aren't as optimistic about Choo's power. They think his inside-out swing and approach will limit him to 10-15 homers per year, which isn't enough for a regular corner outfielder... Choo will have to repeat Triple-A, though he's still just 23.

What about a corner outfielder with a .400 on-base percentage? Is that enough for a corner outfielder? Anyway, here were Baseball America's top eight non-Johjima prospects for 2006:

1. Jeff Clement
2. Adam Jones
3. Chris Snelling
4. Matt Tuiasosopo
5. Asdrubal Cabrera
6. Shin-Soo Choo
7. Emiliano Fruto
8. Clint Nageotte

Three of those eight became big-time major leaguers, but correctly predicting which three ... well, you might as well have drawn three names from a baseball cap.

Unfortunately (and famously, up Seattle way) the M's traded all three of them before they were big-timers. A few weeks before trading Choo to the Indians for Broussard, they'd traded Cabrera to the Indians for Peréz. I haven't asked him, but I'll guess those few weeks rank among the greatest in Mark Shapiro's professional career. And just a year-and-a-half later, the M's traded Adam Jones and Chris Tillman to the Orioles for Erik Bedard. You probably know how that one turned out.

But, again, Cabrera and Choo were not can't-miss prospects. Getting back to Baseball Prospectus, this is lifted from the Choo comment in the annual that spring:

The problem is that the Mariners are flush with players like him: lefty hitters who get on base, run, and catch the ball ... There may be a trade to be had by packaging one of the young lefty outfielders, one of the top middle infield prospects and one of the back-end pitching staff members for a legit power bat.

Hey, that's exactly what happened! Well, I guess how exactly depends on your definition of legit power bat. But the M's traded one of the lefty outfielders and one of the middle-infield prospects for what looked like a decent, fairly powerful, legitimate DH platoon.

Trading Choo for Broussard was bad, but it wasn't astonishingly bad. What's astonishing is the sheer volume of bad moves the M's made in those years, which created a sort of cascade. Signing Carl Everett as an every-day DH was a bad move, which led to the bad moves of trading Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo. They also spent immense sums of money on Jarrod Washburn and Carlos Silva, which led to the bad move of trading Jones and Tillman for Bedard. Every significant move a baseball franchise makes is like a stone cast into the water, except we can't predict the ripples. For the M's, nearly all of general manager Bill Bavasi's moves were followed by negative ripples. Which goes part of the way toward explaining how a team that won 93 games in both 2002 and '03 hasn't enjoyed a positive run differential even once since then (granted, with two fluke winning seasons). But it's well worth noting that Bavasi got fired more than five years ago. There's plenty of blame to go around.

Oh, and I almost forgot! After trading Choo, a) the Mariners went 29-32 and finished last, and b) Choo joined the Indians and hit significantly better down the stretch than Broussard. Essentially, the trade could not have gone worse for the Mariners than it did. But that doesn't mean that everybody saw it coming.

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