The veteran reliever the Cardinals said they had atop their list when it came to free agents who specialize in neutralizing lefthanded batters had a list of his own, too.
At the start of the offseason, Randy Choate told his representatives that there were four teams he’d prefer to join, starting with the team he was on, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and a team in his native Texas, the Rangers. He also included two Midwestern clubs he had no connection to except for former teammates and an inkling they each knew how to get to the postseason: Cincinnati and the Cardinals.
Choate had a pretty good feel for his market.
Three of those teams – all except for the Rangers – pursued the lefty this week until the length of commitment the Cardinals offered trumped the others.
“I’m just glad that the Cardinals wanted me as much as I wanted them,” Choate said Friday after finalizing a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Cardinals. “St. Louis was the strongest and the most forward with their offer from the start.”
Choate visited St. Louis on Friday to spend some time inside an MRI machine and pass the required physical to complete his deal with the club, which was agreed upon Wednesday. The Cardinals announced the deal Friday, and Choate said he and his agents chose it over shorter-term offers by the Dodgers and Reds. The lefty specialist explained how the three-year offer, which will take him through his 40th birthday, offers a new level of professional security. It’s the longest deal of his 12-year career.
“I don’t think of myself as 37 because I feel younger, but I could definitely see how a team would look at it like that,” Choate said. “I was realistic coming into this that some teams would only want to do a two-year (deal). I am 37, but I feel 25. I’m high-energy. My arm is in good shape. I don’t play nine innings a game. I face one or two batters a night.”
It’s that role that the Cardinals coveted.
Choate has led the league in appearances in two of the previous three seasons, and the Cardinals were drawn to his success against lefthanded batters. He held them to a .158 average with a .218 slugging percentage – among the lowest rates against of any lefty reliever. He struck out 30 of the 116 lefthanded batters he faced, including Atlanta’s Jason Heyward both of the times they faced each other.
“He has the ability to come into those high-leverage situations and face an elite lefthanded batter for us,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “We looked at him as the ideal fit for what we wanted to do with our bullpen.”
Said manager Mike Matheny: “We know what Randy does. We’re going to use him in that big situation (against a lefty) when we know we have that one shot. That’s what he’s out there to do for us, and there aren’t too many like that.”
While waiting for his flight back to Sacramento, Choate explained how he has come to embrace the role of lefty specialist since his breakout season with Tampa Bay in 2010. He goes into each season looking to make at least 90 appearances and pitch at least 45 innings – both signs of durability and effectiveness. In 2012, Choate appeared in a league-high 80 games and pitched 382/3 innings. Over the previous three seasons he’s used a combination of his sinking fastball and his slider to hold lefties to a .173 average. They have slugged .248 against him since 2010 and have hit only four homers in 294 at-bats.
Reds first baseman and former MVP Joey Votto is hitless in three plate appearances against Choate. Jim Thome, the noted lefty slugger, was one for nine in his career against Choate.
The lefty likens his role to being a placekicker in football.
“Every time I’m out there it may be for only one out because most nights it’s my job when the game is on the line to get only one out,” Choate said. “I guess some guys can figure it out at 19 when you have great talent like Bryce Harper. Not everybody has that great talent. It took me a little longer to find my groove, to find my place. Everybody wants to be the closer but not everybody can be the closer.”
The Cardinals see Choate, who will make $3 million in each of the final two years of his deal, as the complement to lefty Marc Rzepczynski. He will allow Rzepczynski to shift into a middle-relief role and face both lefthanded and righthanded bats. Choate is that true specialist, as righties hit .330 against him and he’s selectively walked enough to raise their average to .492.
Born and raised in Texas and intrigued by the Rangers’ annual contention, Choate had them high on his list. He put the two NL Central clubs on because he knew both would be contending for a playoff spot, had heard good things about Reds manager Dusty Baker and had talked with teammates about St. Louis. Nick Punto painted a favorable picture of the Cardinals, and current reliever Edward Mujica, a teammate in Miami, spoke highly of the current bullpen.
That moved the Cardinals up on his list.
Judging by the offer, the Cardinals already had him high on theirs.
“This wasn’t a situation that we wanted to let get away from us,” Mozeliak said. “The market for lefties seemed to be starting to move and we wanted to make sure we got the best fit.”