Indians face tough decision on Choo
Outfielder is set to hit free-agent market after next season
CLEVELAND -- The clock appears to be ticking on Shin-Soo Choo's time in Cleveland. The only question seems to be whether it expires this winter or if the Indians will ride things out and let the right fielder walk in free agency next offseason.
Extending Choo's contract was a popular topic and seemed possible a few winters ago. The concept was floated again last offseason with no results. Signing Choo to a multi-year contract now -- in his final winter of arbitration eligibility -- seems like wishful thinking.
"We have, on numerous occasions, looked to try to extend Choo's stay in Cleveland," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said Monday morning. "We've looked to extend his contract. We just haven't been able to reach an agreement."
That makes trading Choo a real possibility this winter.
An important part of the equation during negotiations over the past few years is the fact that Choo is represented by agent Scott Boras. History has shown that Boras' clients have consistently tested free agency when they become eligible in order to seek robust contracts. Rare is the player who -- under Boras' watch -- signs an extension during his arbitration years.
Choo, 30, earned $4.9 million last season and could net a salary in the $7-8 million range for the 2013 campaign through the arbitration process. Cleveland should (and will) listen to trade offers for Choo simply because due diligence dictates such an approach. One way or another, the right fielder seems destined to don another team's jersey in 2014.
During last week's General Managers Meetings, Boras took a jab at Indians ownership when asked if he thought Choo would be traded before next season.
"Choo's let it be known that he has a desire to win," Boras told a group of reporters. "I think the ownership in Cleveland, foundationally, they're going to have to illustrate some dynamics with new revenues and where they stand about what they do to show their fan base and their players who they are in competing.
"That's a new calling that they are going to have to bring forth to give players, and everybody involved, [an idea] about what their intentions are in their ownership."
Antonetti did not see the need to respond to Boras' criticism of Cleveland's way of doing things.
"I don't think we really need to react to that," Antonetti said. "We obviously have to conduct business the way we think it makes sense for the franchise."
Trading Choo is a possibility, but Antonetti also sees value in keeping the right fielder.
Last season, Choo hit .283 with 16 home runs, 21 stolen bases, 43 doubles, 67 RBIs and 88 runs scored in 155 games. He joined Roberto Alomar (1999-2000) and Grady Sizemore (2008) as the only players in club history to enjoy a season with at least 15 homers, 20 stolen bases and 40 doubles.
Over the past five years, Choo has hit .291 with a .384 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging percentage. He has an average of 16 homers, 30 doubles and 69 RBIs per season during that span. The right fielder thrived as a leadoff hitter in 2012 and finished as a finalist for a Gold Glove Award.
"I had goals," Choo said of his performance this past season. "My first goal was for the team to make the playoffs. We didn't make the playoffs this year. The second goal was I wanted to play as many games as possible. I think I met that goal this year. I played 155 games this year.
"I'm really happy. I didn't hit 20 homers or .300, but I played many games and I was healthy. I'm happy with this season."
Cleveland could try to get as much out of Choo as possible next season and then aim for a compensation Draft pick by making the right fielder a qualifying one-year offer next winter. The value of qualifying offers this offseason was $13.3 million. The Indians could also explore trading Choo before the non-waiver Trade Deadline next year.
Antonetti continues to think highly of the Tribe's young core and is using this offseason to try to complement that group. Players such as Kevin Youkilis, Melky Cabrera and Jason Bay have been rumored to be on Cleveland's radar -- evidence that the Indians are weighing rebuilding against retooling for a possible run next year.
Keeping players such as Choo, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, starter Justin Masterson and closer Chris Perez would signal the Indians' belief that the team can turn things around swiftly in the American League Central next year. Trading away those pieces could mean the organization (following a 94-loss showing) feels it has to target a later season for contending.
"We're looking to improve," Antonetti said. "We've had conversations with a number of different free agents to try to make us more competitive next year. We continue to feel strong that we have a good nucleus of talent around which to build.
"We're open to multi-year deals for the right guy. It just has to be the right guy. There are a number of free agents for whom we've contemplated multi-year deals."
A multi-year deal to keep Choo, however, seems increasingly unlikely.
At the end of last season, Choo was asked if he wanted to be back with the Indians in 2013.
"I want to stay here," Choo replied. "But it's not that easy. The team makes the decision. If the team says, 'Go,' I'll go. But I hope I can come back here. Yeah, next year, I want to come back."
What lies beyond next year is where the situation becomes more complicated.