Injuries and inconsistency: The case against signing Carlos Correa

MLB

Carlos Correa is a generational talent. Carlos Correa is inconsistent and injury-prone.

Carlos Correa is one of the best all-around players in the game. Carlos Correa is overrated.

Carlos Correa is worth a $300 million contract. Carlos Correa is a risky investment.

While MLB teams committed over $1.9 billion to 51 free agents in their pre-lockout spending binge, the top consensus offseason free agent went unsigned. Correa, coming off his best all-around season, hits free agency for his age-27 season as a power-hitting, Gold Glove shortstop in his prime. Given that Corey Seager, a similar player but a year older, signed with the Texas Rangers for $325 million, Correa should expect a similar return.

Still, as those contradictory statements above suggest, Correa is a difficult player to evaluate. Let’s examine each of those statements and then look at his potential destinations.

1. Correa is a generational talent

The first overall pick in 2012, Correa was just 17 when he was drafted and reached the majors in 2015 at age 20. That alone is a strong marker for future stardom, and Correa hasn’t disappointed. In his seven seasons with the Houston Astros, Correa ranks sixth among all position players in Baseball-Reference WAR at 34.1, behind only Mike Trout (48.5), Mookie Betts (47.7), Nolan Arenado (38.1), Paul Goldschmidt (35.8) and Manny Machado (35.5). What’s even more impressive is if you rank those players by WAR per 650 plate appearances:

Trout: 9.1
Betts: 7.4
Correa: 6.9
Arenado: 5.9
Goldschmidt: 5.4
Machado: 5.3

Correa also ranks 16th among all position players since 1961 in career WAR through their age-26 seasons — and that’s with the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season affecting his overall numbers. It’s hard to dispute: Correa has been one of the best young players of the past 60 years.

2. Correa is inconsistent and injury-prone

That 6.9 WAR per 650 PAs is outstanding, but it’s also misleading. Correa has approached that figure just twice in an actual season — 153 games and 660 plate appearances in 2016 and 148 games and 640 plate appearances in 2021. He missed an average of 64 games per season from 2017 through 2019 — a torn thumb ligament in 2017, a back ailment in 2018 and a fractured rib in 2019. It’s the back issue that creates the concern about his long-term viability to remain on the field enough to justify a megadeal contract. What if it returns?

Aside from the injuries, Correa’s two best offensive seasons came in 2017 (.315/.391/.550), when he played 109 games and the Astros were cheating to steal signs (Correa’s home OPS was 79 points higher, although he still had a .905 OPS on the road), and in 2019 (.279/.358/.568), when he played just 75 games (and he hit .323 at home compared to .242 on the road). In his two full seasons, he slugged under .500 — still very good but not dominant at the plate.

Over the past two seasons, Correa has hit .275/.355/.458 — a lower OPS than Brandon Crawford, Tim Anderson or Willy Adames, just to name three other shortstops. OK, a poor pandemic-shortened season drags down those numbers, but Correa has hit above .280 just once and never hit 30 home runs. Is that an offensive player you want to give $300 million to?

3. Correa is one of the best all-around players in the game

So maybe he’s not Fernando Tatis Jr. at the plate — he doesn’t have to be. All he has to be is what he was in 2021, when he hit .279/.366/.485 with 26 home runs and won the Platinum Glove as the best defensive player in the American League. He hits for average, he hits for power, he draws walks and he’s an elite defender. That’s why he was worth 7.2 bWAR, second only to Marcus Semien‘s 7.3 among position players. That’s an MVP candidate.

4. Correa is overrated

We just said Correa has been worth 34.1 WAR in his career. Well … FanGraphs pegs his value much lower, with a career WAR of 25.1. That’s a significant difference:

Baseball-Reference: 6.9 per 650 PAs
FanGraphs: 5.1 per 650 PAs

That’s still a great player, but it’s the difference between an MVP candidate and a mere All-Star. What’s going on here? As you might expect, the split is mostly in defensive evaluation — Baseball-Reference uses defensive runs saved (DRS), which loves Correa’s defense (+67 runs saved in his career, including plus-20 in 2021, and above average every season), while FanGraphs uses ultimate zone rating (UZR), which isn’t a big fan (minus-12.2 runs in his career, although plus-2.9 in 2021). For what it’s worth, Statcast’s outs above average (OAA) ranked Correa at the 98th percentile in 2021 — and if you watched the Astros in the postseason, Correa certainly passed the eye test as deserving of the Platinum Glove honor. So two of the three metrics do say Correa is an elite glove — which scouts will also agree with. Still, it’s possible that Baseball-Reference is slightly overrating Correa’s value.

Anyway, aside from measuring his defense, it’s worth noting that Correa has finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting just once — fifth in 2021. For $300 million and change, you want somebody who can factor in the MVP discussion on an annual basis and that hasn’t been the case for Correa.

5. Correa is worth a $300 million contract

Bottom line: Players like this don’t come along very often. The first five years of a 10-year contract will span his age-27 season through age-31 season — which should cover the remainder of his prime years. After that? Keep in mind that Semien, entering his age-31 season, just got $175 million while posting nearly the same OPS+ as Correa in 2021 (133 versus 131 for Correa) … and he’s now a second baseman, not a Gold Glove shortstop. So, yes, barring some unforeseen ramifications of the lockout, Correa will get his money.

Compare him to the other similar free agents/extensions of recent seasons and how they’ve fared heading into their new contracts:

Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million), entering age-28 season: 5.1 WAR/650 PAs
Francisco Lindor (10 years, $341 million), age-27 season: 5.2 WAR/650 PAs
Mookie Betts (12 years, $365 million), age-28 season: 7.6 WAR/650 PAs
Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million), age-26 season: 4.6 WAR/650 PAs
Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million), age-26 season: 5.5 WAR/650 PAs

6. Correa is a risky investment

This goes without saying. What if the back problems flare up again? What if he never hits 30 home runs? What if he loses a step on defense? (Of note: Correa is not a fast runner, with a 48th percentile ranking in 2021.) We’ll dig into the history of past megadeals at a future date, but suffice it to say that many of them haven’t worked out. The Mets and Angels already have to be nervous about their investments in Lindor and Trout. While Correa has been healthy the past two seasons, that’s clearly no guarantee given his history.

OK, now that we got that out of the way, let’s look at how Correa’s potential suitors line up once the lockout ends.

Current projected payroll: $220.7 million

At the start of free agency, the Yankees and Tigers were viewed as the two favorites to sign Correa. Both teams had clear holes at shortstop after New York moved Gleyber Torres to second base late in the season with the intention of keeping him there moving forward. The Tigers signed Javier Baez, while the Yankees have signed … nobody yet. The first round of free agency was eerily silent in the Bronx.

The Yankees’ reluctance to sign one of the free-agent shortstops could be tied to their belief in Anthony Volpe, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2019 who had a breakout season in Class A at age 20, hitting .294/.423/.604 with 27 home runs and 33 stolen bases in 109 games. It was arguably the most impressive season of any minor leaguer, although some scouts have doubts if his arm strength is enough to stay at shortstop. Still, if Volpe is ready for 2023, the Yankees might instead look for a one-year stopgap such as Andrelton Simmons — and focus instead on seeing if they can lure Freddie Freeman to New York with a nine-figure contract. Buster Olney said recently that the Yankees might decline to spend big this offseason as they look to extend Aaron Judge before 2023.

There is also the issue of how the Yankees players feel about Correa and his part in the Astros’ cheating scandal (the Yankees lost to the Astros in the 2017 and 2019 American League Championship Series). While it’s easy to say that’s a nonfactor, it’s something more than zero.

Current projected payroll: $206 million

This might appear an odd fit since the Red Sox already have an All-Star shortstop in Xander Bogaerts, but two points here:

1. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom has said he wants to improve the Boston defense, and understandably so. The Red Sox allowed a .324 batting average on balls in play in 2021, the worst in the majors. OK, some of those were cheap fly balls off the Green Monster, but the Red Sox also allowed the worst batting average on grounders (.273). They could sign Correa, move Bogaerts to third base and Rafael Devers to first base, improving significantly on defense at both shortstop and third.

2. Bogaerts has an opt-out after the 2022 season that he would seem likely to exercise. He’ll be entering his age-30 season in 2023 and already has below-average defensive metrics, so would you rather sign the 27-year-old Correa to a long-term deal or a 30-year-old Bogaerts?

Signing Correa would make the Red Sox better in 2022, and he’s the better long-term option at shortstop as well. Yes, this would require the Red Sox to blow past the likely luxury-tax threshold — but that hasn’t stopped them before.

Current projected payroll: $189.3 million

The payroll figure includes Justin Verlander‘s $25 million salary for 2022, although reports surfaced that the deal isn’t final (and Verlander isn’t listed on the Astros’ official roster). As for Correa, the Astros reportedly offered him a five-year, $160 million deal. That won’t get it done, but let’s say something has cropped up in Verlander’s medical status that has the Astros concerned. Maybe they divert that money back to Correa in a longer-term deal.

The Astros do have a good shortstop prospect in Jeremy Pena, who showed surprising power with 10 home runs in 30 games at Triple-A (hitting .287/.346/.598 in 133 plate appearances) after he missed the first half of the season with a wrist injury. The Astros could roll the dice on Pena or go after Texas-born Trevor Story, the less expensive alternative to Correa. A return engagement with Correa still feels unlikely, but if the Yankees and Red Sox drop out, you never know.

Current projected payroll: $178.3 million

This one is easy: Didi Gregorius is making $15.25 million for 2022, but he’s also coming off a terrible season, posting a .270 OBP and finishing last among shortstops in Statcast’s outs above average metric. It’s unreasonable to expect Gregorius to bounce back at age 32, so the Phillies should just view that contract as a sunk cost and find a better shortstop. The Phillies could go with Gregorius to start the season and hope Bryson Stott, the team’s first-round pick in 2019 who reached Triple-A in 2021 for a few games, is ready sooner rather than later. They also have other holes to fill and might not desire taking on another big contract with Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler all making at least $23 million or more through at least 2024.

Current projected payroll: $128.1 million

Just a few hours after agreeing to a three-year contract with the Cubs, Marcus Stroman made his recruiting pitch for his new club to sign Correa, tweeting to him, “Need you in Chicago my dawg!” While the perception is the Cubs are still in rebuilding mode, take note of their major offseason acquisitions: signing Stroman and acquiring Wade Miley from the Reds. Given that Stroman has an opt-out after two seasons, those are two “win now” moves, and a rotation of Stroman, Miley, Kyle Hendricks and Adbert Alzolay could be sneaky good.

That top three is a pitch-to-contact trio, all the more reason to sign the Platinum Glove winner. Current shortstop Nico Hoerner is hardly a roadblock, and there is plenty of room in the payroll to go after Correa and others. Remember what Cubs president Jed Hoyer said at the end of the regular season: “We plan to be really busy active in free agency.” Team chairman Tom Ricketts sent a letter to season-ticket holders in October declaring, “We have the resources to compete in 2022 and beyond, and we will use them.”

A Correa signing would align with what Theo Epstein and Hoyer did in 2015, when they signed Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million deal coming off a 73-89 season in 2014. The Cubs need a centerpiece, face-of-the-franchise offensive player. The Cubs look more and more like a good fit.

Current projected payroll: $99.4 million

Similar to the Red Sox, there isn’t an obvious fit here with 2020 Gold Glover J.P. Crawford on the roster. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto told reporters at the GM meetings in November — apparently, very firmly — that Crawford is the team’s shortstop now and for the future, affirming that with Crawford at the end of the season. After signing Robbie Ray, however, Dipoto said, “When we start the ’22 season, I would be shocked if we haven’t added more to our offense.”

So the Mariners are desperate for a big bat after finishing 11th in the AL in runs, and second and third base are currently occupied by Adam Frazier (who could shift into a super-utility role) and Abraham Toro (a nice bench player). Taking Dipoto at his word, would the Mariners sign Correa to play third base? One of the main reasons to give him $300 million is that he is a shortstop; moving Correa to third base is a waste of value, so it seems more likely the Mariners pursue Kris Bryant or Story to play third base, or perhaps one of the outfield/DH bats (Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber, Seiya Suzuki, Michael Conforto). If super prospect Julio Rodriguez is ready coming out of spring training — don’t bet against it — that crowds the corner picture even further, unless they’re willing to stretch Jarred Kelenic or Rodriguez as a center fielder, let alone if Kyle Lewis‘ knees are healthy. But let that stuff sort itself out. The Mariners need a hitter and have money to spend.

Finally, three sleeper teams:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers: They have Trea Turner at shortstop, plus Gavin Lux and Chris Taylor, so they are strong up the middle. They might be in on Freeman and need to fill out the rotation with Max Scherzer in Queens and Clayton Kershaw unsigned for now. Never ignore their deep pockets, but other than the Betts extension, the Andrew Friedman front office has refrained from the super-long contracts.

2. Atlanta Braves: Dansby Swanson is a free agent after 2022, so they could sign Correa and trade Swanson. Seems unlikely given owner Liberty Media has always been reluctant to go big in free agency — and if they do it now, it’s more likely to re-sign Freeman.

3. Toronto Blue Jays: They lost Semien from the middle of the lineup, and their current payroll ($159.1 million) has room to grow. Bo Bichette, a below-average shortstop, slides over to second base to give the Blue Jays the best double-play combo in the majors (depending on your view of Seager and Semien).

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