Choo never far from Rangers' minds
Club saw fit and set sights on leadoff man after Ian Kinsler-Prince Fielder swap
Fresh Start For Fielder
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers made a big move in November trading for Prince Fielder. And, of course, there would be major ripple effects.
The deal came together so quickly that the Rangers didn't get a chance to inform Ian Kinsler that he was leaving the team that drafted and developed him before Twitter was abuzz with the news.
General manager Jon Daniels closed the deal just before boarding a plane, but it required MLB approval. As is chronicled in an ESPN The Magazine story on Kinsler, the second baseman found out via text after news broke through social media. Daniels was 30,000 feet in the air, and before he could power on his Wi-Fi the blockbuster was national news.
Daniels said he emailed assistant general manager Thad Levine and told him to try to reach Kinsler or his agent, Jay Franklin. Daniels didn't want to inform Kinsler before the deal, knowing that if rumors or chatter leaked it could scuttle the deal. The Tigers weren't on Kinsler's no-trade list, so the Rangers didn't need to call him or his agent before making a trade official.
"That was the biggest regret for me in that trade is that we weren't able to communicate with Ian in a professional manner the way he deserved," Levine said in February.
Levine did reach Franklin, and Daniels left a voice mail for Kinsler as soon as he landed. But word was already out and the deal was done. And Kinsler never returned the GM's call.
The trade gave Texas a legitimate power hitter with a patient approach at the plate that the club desired. But Fielder was a middle-of-the-order hitter. The Rangers still needed a tone-setter at the top of the lineup. They had Leonys Martin as an option, but he had limited experience and the Rangers were looking for a veteran presence.
Daniels and agent Scott Boras had talked at the general managers meetings in Orlando, Fla., in November and the club made it clear the Rangers had interest in leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo.
"I looked at their lineup and knowing that Prince was there and joked that we could have the 'Fearsome Foursome' in baseball," said Boras, referring to the expected top four of Choo, Elvis Andrus, Fielder and Adrian Beltre, who are all Boras clients. "We ran the numbers and we gave them a book, but they knew most of that anyway. It just made so much sense. Choo liked the area and felt for his family it was a good place."
A face-to-face meeting was the logical next step.
As is the case for any big league general manager, you never know what might pop up when talking with colleagues.
The Oakland A's wanted Craig Gentry, someone with speed who could play some center field and give them depth. The gritty player didn't have a full-time role in Texas, and Martin had solidified the Rangers' starting job in center with a solid 2013. The Rangers lacked corner power at the upper levels of their farm system and had always liked Michael Choice, who played his high school and college baseball just down the road from Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas.
Once the teams completed the swap, Daniels held a conference call with reporters. It was the afternoon of Tuesday, Dec. 3, and as Daniels told the media about Choice as a left fielder, he was heading to a meeting with Choo, the player he hoped would start at that spot for the Rangers for years to come.
In fact, Daniels was sitting in the parking lot at a Bloomingdale's in Orange County, Calif., as he finished his call with the media.
The Rangers didn't want to show up to their chat with Choo without a gift for his wife, Won Mi Ha, who was not scheduled to be at the meeting. So they bought some Korean tea that they found out she liked and some body cream.
"We rolled the dice on the lotion," Daniels said. "We just thought she'd like it."
Director of pro scouting Josh Boyd and Taunee Taylor, the assistant vice president of player relations, had already mailed Rangers jerseys to Choo's home for his two sons and his daughter.
Daniels showed up to a restaurant tucked inside a hotel in Newport Beach, Calif., and was joined by Levine, senior special assistant to the GM Don Welke and manager Ron Washington. Jim Colborn, who scouted and signed Choo when he was with the Seattle Mariners, was caught in traffic and arrived later. Mike Fiore, Jeff Musselman and Tad Hun Yo -- three Boras Corporation executives -- were waiting with Boras and Choo.
"Most often in these meetings the player sits back and basically implies, 'Sell me on you guys,'" Levine said. "It's kind of a unilateral courting. This case was different in that Choo effectively announced to the table that he had a number of questions and asked if we were OK if he started asking them. It was much more of a guy that had a career decision to make and he wanted every piece of information he could get from us."
Choo's approach impressed the Rangers. And they were struck by the kinds of questions he asked -- 90 percent of them in English, with Yo translating only when Choo wanted to be sure he was as precise as he needed to be.
Choo asked about everything from the current makeup of the club to details on the farm system and the club's philosophy in building a contender.
"He didn't eat much," Levine said. "He looked you in the eye and was clearly taking it all in. It was a big decision, and he came into it believing in the idea of a partnership."
The meeting was interrupted by the arrival of Colburn.
"Choo lit up and jumped out of his chair," Daniels said. "It was meaningful to both of them."
The two shared some brief stories, delaying other business by 15 minutes.
"It was one of those reunions," Levine said. "There were big hugs and Choo was stunned he was there. It was special to see how much Jim meant to him, and vice versa. We weren't 100 percent sure Jim could make it, so we left it as a surprise."
What wasn't a surprise was Washington's key role in the meeting. As was the case when Washington talked to Adrian Beltre before the third baseman signed with the Rangers, the skipper quickly bonded with Choo.
"Choo was speaking Wash within three minutes," Levine said. "The chemistry was immediate and palpable. That's one of the absolute magics of Wash. He picks up with players as if he's managed them for five years."
Choo asked the manager a host of questions and Washington made it clear at that meeting that he wanted Choo to lead off.
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Choo's answer: "Are you sure?"
Levine said that Choo started to probe about Washington's reasoning.
"He said something to the effect of, 'I studied your team and it seems that one of Elvis' best assets is stealing bases. Do I truncate his skill by hitting leadoff? Am I better somewhere else for the team?'" Levine said. "We thought, 'Wow.' That led to a 10-minute conversation on the mechanics of the lineup and how Wash saw it."
Washington, of course, was able to convince Choo that he needed to be at the top of the lineup if he signed with Texas.
"He gives you a feeling of what it's like to be in the dugout with him," Boras said of Washington. "He talks about the difficult times and how he manages those times. Players always walk away from a meeting when Wash is in it -- and I've been in three or four of those -- and say to me, 'I'd really like to play for that man.'
"He does it in his way. It's sincere. His delivery and the spirit with which he advocates his commitment and needs is really a true representation of who a person is."
Choo left very intrigued.
"The fact that Ron Washington came told me this team really wants me," Choo said. "I was impressed. I talked a lot to Ron about what was going on. I thought he was pretty similar to Dusty Baker. I loved playing for Dusty. He has a big heart and [is] a good coach. I feel like Ron is like that."
The Rangers left the meeting more impressed with Choo than when they entered. And more convinced that the feeling was mutual.
FINALIZING THE DEAL
The only thing left to do was to see if a deal could get hammered out. But what wasn't clear is what it would take to do it.
The Rangers did not want to go past seven years and were still at a six-year offer when the winter meetings ended.
"It was a pretty big sticking point," Daniels said.
But as the calendar crept closer to Christmas, Daniels and the Rangers decided to up the offer. They knew that Choo wanted to make a decision and they felt he was just too good a fit to pass up.
"We just wanted to get it done," Daniels said. "We said to ownership, 'You don't know if you're 10 percent or 30 percent ahead of someone else.' But this was the kind of player that I didn't think would still be available in spring training. He was going to get a meaningful contract. 'If we're going to stretch, let's get the deal done.' We knew we weren't the only team in on him."
Boras called on a Friday night when Daniels was out to dinner with assistant GM A.J. Preller, Levine and senior director of minor league operations Mike Daly. A few conversations later, Choo was a Ranger.
"In the end, we got two players that we believe fit into everything we're trying to do," Daniels said. "They're patient hitters with a track record. We get power in the middle of the lineup from Prince and a great leadoff guy in Choo. We felt like we made our team better. That was the goal."