As Cubs search for answers, Shin-Soo Choo could be a game-changer

As Cubs search for answers, Shin-Soo Choo could be a game-changer
August 21, 2013, 10:15 pm
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Reporters swarmed Anthony Rizzo at his locker on Wednesday, and they waited out Starlin Castro after batting practice, surrounding him before he got to the dugout steps.

While it’s been fun second-guessing manager Dale Sveum, playing armchair psychologist and speculating about “Cubs Way or The Highway,” everything at Wrigley Field doesn’t have to revolve these two core players. The kids need some help.

The Cubs know they have to change their offensive identity, and industry sources say they will make a run at Shin-Soo Choo this winter, part of the plan to collect more left-handed hitters and boost their on-base percentage.

Choo is maximizing his walk year with the Cincinnati Reds and should get a playoff platform to showcase his all-around skills. Dusty Baker’s leadoff guy is hitting .275 with 15 homers, 37 RBIs, 82 walks, 14 stolen bases and a .412 on-base percentage through 120 games. The meter will keep running.

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Super-agent Scott Boras can market Choo while also representing another dynamic outfielder in Jacoby Ellsbury, who was once drafted by Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod for the Boston Red Sox.

Even with that history, it’s harder to imagine the Cubs giving Ellsbury a megadeal when they essentially sold outfielder David DeJesus to the Washington Nationals this week for $2.5 million, again working off the small-market playbook. It’s been unclear when exactly the new revenues from a renovated Wrigley Field will flow back into the baseball operations department.

While the Cubs have left the door open for DeJesus to return next season — assuming the Nationals pay the $1.5 million buyout for his $6.5 million option — they ideally view him as a fourth outfielder while looking for upgrades.

Nate Schierholtz has set career highs in homers (18) and RBIs (58) and remains under club control for 2014, but he’s not a true everyday player. Alfonso Soriano is no longer anchored in left field. Junior Lake has only been in the big leagues for a month-plus. Ryan Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic might be useful pieces.

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“We’re going to take a pretty hard look at our offense this offseason, for sure,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have a lot of young offensive talent coming. But we can’t just rely on the young guys. We have to figure out how we can be a more efficient offensive team.”

The Big Four — Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant — hit right-handed, and an aggressive, best-case scenario would have maybe one or two of those prospects getting to the North Side late in the 2014 season or by the summer of 2015.

And then they would have go through the ups and downs Rizzo and Castro have experienced for years in the big leagues. So the Cubs have to spend some money on free agents, unless they want to keep pushing back the competitive timeline while noticing more empty seats and trying to angle for their next television deals.

It has been another weird season. The Cubs began Wednesday hitting .220 — worst in the majors — with runners in scoring position. Their .301 on-base percentage ranked next-to-last in the National League, while their 391 extra-base hits ranked first. Only one other team in the league had hit more homers (136). They have already been shut out 10 times.

[MORE: Cubs GM Hoyer defends Starlin Castro, still sees All-Star potential]

“The biggest thing we have to figure out is (our offense),” Hoyer said. “We do some things pretty well. Our slugging percentage has been pretty good this year. But we’ve got to get to the bottom of the runners-in-scoring-position issue. We haven’t been the worst batting-average team in the National League for two years, but we have been the worst in scoring position. The fact that those things don’t line up is a frustration.

“We have to get on base more. Period.

“There’s a team offensive element that I don’t think we’re all that good at. I think we’re last in the league in sacrifice bunts, last in sacrifice flies. We have to get better at all those elements of the game.”

Choo would help across the board, even though he has performed significantly better against right-handers (.928 OPS) than left-handers (.671 OPS) in his career. He will turn 32 next summer. He spent significant time on the disabled list in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 with a series of injuries. Boras will gloss over those details while pushing his client toward the biggest deal.

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Choo avoided two years of mandatory military service by helping South Korea win a gold medal at the Asian Games in 2010. He repaired his image after a 2011 DUI arrest while playing for the Cleveland Indians and has been described as a true professional and a good teammate. The Reds didn’t worry about a potential one-and-done player and traded for him believing he’d be the finishing piece for a World Series team.

Adding Choo and another offensive catalyst would help take the heat off Rizzo and Castro. At that point where they hit in the lineup — and asking them to talk about their feelings — wouldn’t have to be the lead story hours before first pitch.