I know it's still February, but so far, it looks like the Reds were serious.
Even though I've been a skeptic about Choo being even a remotely good centerfielder, it's pretty hard to argue he doesn't give a serious jolt to the team with a season's worth of starts in the lead-off spot. And the comparisons to Billy Bean style, Moneyball-era position creativity don't hurt.
Since there's still a lot of distrust of defensive ratings - it can be nearly impossible to reconcile them - I decided to look at the general direction of his numbers in right field since 2008. Were they negative, positive or roughly neutral?
These aren't apples-to-apples comparisons. They use different baselines and represent different playing time across seasons. But they're all put in terms of runs saved and we've got enough data (five years) that we should really be able make some conclusions about whether Choo has been a plus or minus in the outfield:
KEY: UZR=Universal Zone Rating, FRAA=Fielding Runs Above Average (Baseball Prospectus), BBRef= Baseball Reference Runs from Fielding, DRS= Defensive Runs Saved (Fielding Bible), FSR=Fan Scouting Report, ADR=FanGraphs Aggregate Defensive Ranking
One thing that seems pretty clear - and agrees with eyewitness scouting - is that Choo was pretty bad out there last season. Some of that could be explained away by the fact that he was coming off an injury in 2011, from which there may have been lingering effects and tentativeness.
It seems fair to say that Choo was pretty good from 2009 to 2011. Now that he's 30, he's getting close to the age where his defensive skills could collapse. But the Reds are only on-board for one season. If healthy, his default setting - an above-average right fielder with a good arm - seems reasonable.
Of course, he's being asked to play center field, not right. He's played 83 innings there in the majors (none since 2009) and made 151 appearances in CF in the minors (or 38% of games played in the outfield as a minor leaguer).
It's not outrageous to imagine Choo as a centerfielder, considering he's appeared at the position across every professional level. But all the information we have is indirect.
FanGraphs position adjustment for CF for a full season is around 2.0 - 2.5 runs, while right field gets almost 7 runs deducted. So Choo nets a little less than a win in overall value (hitting + fielding + baserunning) just by moving to centerfield. Keeping everything constant from 2012 - and assuming Choo could be the same caliber at CF that he was in right - then he's a guaranteed 3.0+ win player.
But it doesn't work that way. Being a slightly-above-average RF does not a slightly-above-CF-er make. On top of CF being a considerably harder position to play with more chances than right field, Choo will be adjusting to a new ballpark, new mates in the outfield and a position he hasn't played regularly since the minors.
My intuition says all of that more than wipes out the ~1 win he's spotted for moving to CF. The worst qualifying CF'ers in recent years top out at about negative -2.5 wins with their defense.
If we assume Choo is the worst regular CF in the big leagues next year, we can do this quick 'n' dirty calculation of his WAR (assuming basically 2012 production):
27 runs above replacement (batting) + 0 runs baserunning + 20 runs (replacement level adjustment) - 23 runs (fielding + position adjustment) = 24 runs = (roughly) 2.0 wins
There's a lot of assumptions in here, but in a worst-case scenario for his defense and an average-case scenario for his offense, Choo is still a league average player. That's a very clear improvement over what the Reds got out of centerfield last season, though it's nothing to get too cranked up about.
It seems pretty obvious that the numbers fall short here. Maybe there's a human side to this we're missing. It should be said somewhere in here that Choo has a very good arm, which is a part of his human body. The numbers seem to like his arm and so does most of what I've read about Choo.
His "routes" to fly balls are more suspect, though this always seems like a term people just throw around when they want to sound like they know about fielding. Which I do.
Choo is no speedster, but he's by no means slow. He's stolen at least 20 bags in 3 of the last 4 seasons, at or above the break-even point. And he's been above average on the basepaths in 4 of his last 5 seasons by FanGraphs' standards.
In an ESPN Insider piece last week by Jim Bowden, he gathered some intel on Choo. While it often seems like Segway-pants has an axe to grind with his former employer, his take seemed fair. He talked to 15 baseball talent evaluators who agreed that Choo was gold-glove caliber in 2010, but that in 2011-'12, Choo's defense has gotten much worse - generally timid and sluggish.
I'd wager this has a lot to do with his injury troubles in 2011. And the fact that Choo said he was "uncomfortable" playing center field upon arriving in camp might have everything to do with being at the beginning of this experiment.
Of the Choo footage I've watched, there seems to be a lot of highlights of him making sliding or diving plays where slides and dives wouldn't be necessary from a CF with normal range.
In a worst-case scenario where Choo is still healthy all season, he's a marginal upgrade over Drew Stubbs ( 2012). Best case, he adds over 3 wins above the replacement-level production the Reds got out of CF/lead-off spot last year. He's going to be a klunker in center-field - and not likely to polish his game very much in a month of spring training, but I think the Reds have done their homework.
I give it four outfield divots out of five.