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Baseball

Is Marcus Semien the Next Adrian Beltre? Or the Next Shin-Soo Choo?

One aged like fine wine; the other soured. The answer will have major ramifications for the Rangers' future.
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You’d be fully within your rights to suggest the greatest free-agent pickup in the half-century of Rangers baseball was a 31-year-old Scott Boras client coming off the second-best season of his career, a season in which he earned MVP votes in his lone year with the team he was moving on from. 

You could just as fairly make a case that the most questionable free-agent move the franchise has ever made, in terms of its timing if nothing else, was with another 31-year-old represented by Boras, also on the heels of his second-best season, and also coming off of a one-and-done with a new team in which he landed on MVP ballots before jumping to Texas.

As long as we’re trying to be fair and reasonable here, let’s not ask whether Marcus Semien — who checks every one of those boxes himself — is the next Adrian Beltre or whether his long-term mega-contract is poised to ultimately be as ill-fitting as Shin-Soo Choo’s. The overwhelming likelihood is that Semien’s time in Texas will land somewhere in between the two, neither a financial albatross in a largely noncompetitive cycle nor a run that leads to a retired number and a Rangers cap in Cooperstown.

The Rangers are obviously banking (in more ways than one) on Semien being closer to Beltre than to Choo in his time here — and on team success these next seven seasons that more closely resembles Beltre’s term as a Ranger (four playoff seasons, one World Series) than Choo’s (two, zero).

Another thing that adding Semien on a seven-year, $175 million contract days before the league entered a work stoppage has in common with both the Beltre and Choo signings is that the magnitude of the deal caught the media, if not the industry, off guard. Nobody quibbled with Semien’s $25 million AAV, but the duration exceeded most projections — not to mention the commitment coming from a team that may not find itself in a legitimate playoff race until he’s well into the contract and into his 30s. Though Choo’s seven-year, $130 million deal was with a winning team, it was seemingly inflated by the overall weakness of the 2013-14 free-agent class, making him one of the belles of that winter’s underwhelming ball and increasing his market among teams looking for improvement offensively. 

But it was the five years and $80 million that Texas gave Beltre in January of 2011 — six and $96 million as long as he was healthy toward the end of the deal — that drew the most contempt inside the game. At the Owners Meetings a week later (at which the lead agenda was discussion of the imminent expiration of the CBA: whee!!), new Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg, whose group had bought the beleaguered franchise months earlier, recalls the Beltre contract being picked on in front of the assemblage of billionaires as a “terrible deal” that wasn’t helping matters with collective bargaining talks on the horizon.

Beltre wasn’t the Rangers’ top target that winter — and they were not his — but the failure to retain playoff ace Cliff Lee paved the way for a historically significant fallback plan. The third baseman earned MVP votes in each of his five guaranteed seasons, as well as the vested sixth, and early in 2016 he signed another two-year deal to make it an eight-year run with Texas that took him to the end of his career. There was no expectation that Beltre didn’t outperform, no projection that he didn’t blow away. The “terrible deal” that the Rangers’ rookie owners had agreed to turned out to be as team-friendly as any mega-contract of the decade.

When he signed that first contract with Texas, Beltre was assimilating into a completely different environment from the one Semien comes into. Aside from the contrast between a team coming off of the best season in franchise history and a 102-loss squad recovering from one of its worst, the Rangers’ roster heading into 2011 was stacked, particularly in the lineup. MVP Josh Hamilton was back, as were All-Stars Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus, team leader Michael Young (a year removed from six straight All-Star seasons himself), and post-season hero Nelson Cruz. When Beltre and Mike Napoli arrived, they weren’t asked to help set a new tone — something they would have been plenty capable of doing — but instead to add to an already stable club identity.

Young, now a special assistant to the general manager, was the player who was looked to as the leader of the franchise’s World Series teams. It was his clubhouse. There’s no Michael Young on the team that Texas comes out of 2021 with. Semien — and Corey Seager — will walk into a clubhouse in spring training with an expectation of leadership on a club that must learn how to win.

“Our team is relatively short on big-game experience,” Young tells me. “We want players who will produce, first and foremost, but who will also raise the bar on what we want our identity to be. It can happen quick. It doesn’t take much to start that fire. … Marcus fits the bill on that front.”

Semien arrives after a 91-win Blue Jays season that fell one victory short of a fourth straight post-season for the infielder (the three before it with Oakland). He finished third in the AL MVP race for the second time in three years, is the best player in baseball the last three years with 16.0 total Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) (including 7.3 bWAR in 2021, a mark no Rangers hitter has matched since Hamilton’s 2010 MVP season), won a Gold Glove this year at second base (a new position for him), and hit 45 home runs, an all-time MLB record for the position. 

But when the organization introduced Semien at a press conference hours before the league imposed a lockout, most of the talk focused not on his monster numbers or season-ending accolades but instead on the intangibles he brings: the work ethic, the makeup, the respect he commands in the game.

“We feel that Marcus is an excellent fit for the Rangers organization from a talent, culture, and leadership standpoint,” general manager Chris Young said that day. “Beyond his ability as a player, Marcus is an outstanding person who leads by example both on and off the field.”

Eno Sarris is a National Baseball Analytics Writer with The Athletic; few in his field have better command of the numbers beneath the numbers and how to both measure production and project where it’s headed. None of that, however, is what Sarris — who is based in Palo Alto and has spent as much time around the Oakland A’s as any other team over the last decade — chose to spotlight in his reaction to the Semien signing.

“His potential clubhouse presence was a huge positive in our evaluation of him as a player and person,” says Michael Young. “Any veteran player we bring in will have an opportunity to really leave a footprint with the club. Marcus fits that to a tee.”

The Rangers were comfortable that Beltre would fit the team’s winning culture when they brought him in. In Semien’s case, they’re looking to him to help establish one.

Choo came into a situation that was somewhere in between. While the Rangers had played beyond 162 games for four years in a row — two World Series, a Wild Card appearance, and a play-in game that followed a 91-win season — the roster had turned over significantly. Gone were Young, Hamilton, Kinsler, Cruz, and Napoli, but Beltre and Mitch Moreland were still around, Yu Darvish had arrived, and so that same off-season had Prince Fielder. Choo wasn’t asked to blend in with a veteran, contending group like Beltre had been, but neither was he expected to step into the clubhouse prepared to put a young team on his back.

(A parallel can arguably be drawn between Fielder, whose seven remaining years and $168 million the Rangers took on — offset by the $62 million left on Kinsler’s deal that went to Detroit, plus the $30 million subsidy the Tigers sent Texas — and Seager, in that both (in addition to being Boras clients like Choo and Semien), were fairly viewed as the 1A winter additions to Choo and Semien’s 1B status.) 

Texas brought Choo in to give added life to the offense, coming off a year in which he hit 21 home runs and stole 20 bases, drew 112 walks, and reached base at a dizzying .423 clip. But it was about more than just injecting power, walks, and baserunning into the lineup. There was a tone-setting component with him as well.

“We were looking to improve the offensive approach of the club,” says then GM Jon Daniels. “Choo was among the best at the time at staying in the zone, forcing the pitcher over the plate. We valued the production but also wanted someone to model that approach for the rest of the group.”

The Rangers wanted more offensively out of potential table-setters Andrus and Leonys Martin. Prospect Rougned Odor was coming fast. And with Beltre, Darvish, and now Fielder on board, the club believed its window to win a World Series hadn’t yet shut and Choo could help keep it propped open, even if his contract (which jumped from $14 million annually to $20 million after two years and would bump up to $21 million a year for the final two seasons of the seven-year deal) would likely be a mismatch toward the end if the club fell into a decline.

The only two players the Rangers had ever signed for a longer term were Alex Rodriguez (10 years) and Andrus (eight-year extension), but A-Rod had an opt-out after seven years and Andrus after four and five. Choo’s was a fixed seven-year obligation.

And he was solid, if not great, on the field, a .260/.363/.429 (.792 OPS) hitter as a Ranger who was regularly in the 20-homer range in the years that weren’t truncated by injury. He was exemplary off the field. Over his final four seasons in Texas, his production was good (.801 OPS) but the team wasn’t, finishing an average of 25 games back in the division. Choo’s contract, which was too pricey to move, became his baseball-card caption. 

If that’s the outcome with Semien — a good player, great at times, and a model teammate whose contract would be an issue if the team is not competitive on the back half of his deal — then something will have gone very wrong. With the team, that is. Even if his production were to wane toward the end of the contract, the idea is that the Rangers will be pennant-race fixtures by then, propelled perhaps by Semien’s presence and impact on his younger teammates in their formative years. 

Not that he couldn’t replicate Beltre’s trajectory and play so well that there will be another Rangers contract to follow. While Choo posted an .847 OPS as a big leaguer prior to his age-30 season and an .807 mark thereafter — a typical downward slope — Beltre found new life in the second half of his career, mostly in Texas. Before he was 30, Beltre was a .786-OPS hitter over 11 seasons. In his 30s (10 seasons), the mark jumped to .856 (with an otherworldly 52.2 bWAR — or 42.8 fWAR under the FanGraphs measure, which laps the field). 

Semien’s off to a good start with that .873 OPS this year, his age-30 season. His 2019 and 2021 were better at the plate than any of his first six seasons — and on defense as well, as his work at shortstop went from erratic as a young player in Oakland to elite (which he attributes in large part to his work with Ron Washington, another Semien/Beltre/Choo link, who rejoined the A’s coaching staff early in Semien’s career), and then he won the Gold Glove this year at second base with Toronto. He’s proven to be elite in his durability as well, playing in all 162 games in each of baseball’s last two full seasons. (This is where I unsuccessfully tried hard to avoid mentioning that Fielder was every bit as much of an ironman when the Rangers traded Kinsler for him.)

There was undoubtedly a component to the decision to give Semien seven high-priced years that involved making sure that Nick Solak, Andy Ibanez, Josh Jung, Justin Foscue, Josh Smith, Ezequiel Duran, Davis Wendzel, and eventually Dustin Harris, Luisangel Acuna, Thomas Saggese, Chris Seise, Jonathan Ornelas, Maximo Acosta, and Cam Cauley spend a lot of time around the veteran infielder — which is not to say that Semien won’t be as helpful for Isiah Kiner-Falefa to be around as he was in Toronto for Bo Bichette, or that Jose Trevino, Jonah Heim, Leody Taveras, and Sam Huff won’t have an opportunity to get better being around Semien (and Seager) themselves.

The reputation that Semien has established, to be sure, is a big reason why a team that lost more than 100 games and isn’t expected to join the pennant race in 2022 either was willing to commit to him in such a monumental way. It’s a bold, expensive move, the type that’s designed to accelerate a rebuild — but also one that doesn’t always work. 

Semien’s was the biggest free-agent deal handed out in baseball this winter — at least until the next day, when, as part of the master plan, the 31-year-old’s decision helped the Rangers land the 27-year-old who completes the $500 million middle infield that now ranks as the game’s best. 

Semien, the great player already making the team around him better. Whether he finishes his major-league career in Texas like Beltre and Choo before him is a story we’re just now flipping to page one on. The bigger story will be whether Semien can be part of something here, eventually, that neither Beltre nor Choo nor any other player in Texas has: a Rangers team that hoists the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the post-season’s final game. 

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