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Carlos Correa looks free agency bound

Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa looks like he will be part of this offseason’s free agents

Houston Astros v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Carlos Correa rejected a contract extension from the Houston Astros, according to both reports from the media and according to Correa himself. Correa says that the offer from the Astros, which apparently was made a couple of weeks ago, was “really low” and he’s preparing to be a free agent after the 2021 season. Correa has previously said that once the season starts on April 1, he will not engage in any contract talks — if he’s not signed an extension by then, he will not forego free agency.

Correa is part of a stellar group of young shortstops — including Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Javy Baez — who are eligible for free agency after the season. The New York Mets, who acquired Lindor in early January, are pursuing an extension with Lindor, who also has said he wants to either have a deal done before the season or hit the market, and Jon Heyman says that “there’s a bit of optimism” that a deal, which he says would be for at least $300 million, will get done. I’m also skeptical that the Dodgers and Corey Seager won’t work something out.

But even if Lindor and Seager end up extending, that will still leave several high quality young shortstops who will be hitting the free agent market at a time when the Rangers will, some folks think, be ready to spend big, and at a time when it appears that they will have positioned themselves to go after a legitimate star player in free agency.* And while Trevor Story is the player who we have focused the most on, Carlos Correa is younger and arguably better.

* This presumes that we see strides from young players in the majors in 2021, as well as from the farm system. If the Rangers’ young players in the majors struggle and the farm has a disappointing year then obviously the calculus would change.

The deal the Astros offered Correa was reportedly for 6 years, $120 million, which would have covered 2022-27, Correa’s age 27-32 seasons. That’s the same deal that the Boston Red Sox signed Xander Bogaerts to, right before Opening Day in 2019, his walk year, and covering his age 27-32 seasons. I don’t think that’s a coincidence — I think the Astros were offering Correa the Bogaerts deal.

From 2013-18, Bogaerts had accumulated 15.6 bWAR in 759 games, with 14.6 of that coming in his previous four seasons, including a breakout .288/.360/.522 season in 2018 when he tied his career high with 4.3 bWAR. He had a career .284/.343/.429 slash line and a career 106 OPS+.

Correa, in comparison, has totaled 26.2 bWAR in 604 games, and has a .276/.353/.480 slash line and a 126 OPS+. Correa can, very reasonably, note that he’s been a better player than Bogaerts, is a better hitter, has been better defensively, and has accumulated more bWAR* than Bogaerts had in fewer games.

* If you prefer fWAR, Bogaerts had 17.8 fWAR through 2018, with a high of 4.9 (twice), and Correa has 19.4 fWAR, with a high of 5.2. The difference is due to UZR seeing Correa as slightly below average defensively and Bogaerts around average, while DRS thinks Correa is well above average and Bogaerts is well below average.

The “fewer games” part, of course, is the rub. Correa has played more than 110 games in a major league season only once, in 2016, his first full year in the league. Given that he debuted in the majors in 2015, that’s a problem.

Now, I should note that in 2015, Correa was the victim of service time manipulation and so wasn’t called up until the season was underway — between AA, AAA and the majors he played 152 games that year. And 2020, of course, was the year of COVID, so he didn’t have a chance to play more than 60 games (and he played in 58).

That being said, the injury history with Correa is a real and legitimate concern. Correa missed time in 2014, while in high-A, due to a broken leg suffered sliding into third base. He missed a good chunk of time in 2017 due to a sprained thumb ligament (injured, again, on a slide). Correa missed six weeks in 2018 due to back issues which apparently plagued him all year. In 2019 he missed two months due to that infamous massage that broke his rib.

One can point to these episodes and say that, other than the back problem (which, let’s be honest, is a pretty serious red flag), these are all one-off episodes, not things indicative of a future problem staying healthy. On the other hand, as Bob Sturm likes to say (I think he was quoting Bill Parcells but am not positive), the problem with injury-prone players is that they tend to get injured. If you’re going to be committing the type of money that it would take to get Correa this offseason — assuming he has a quality 2021 campaign — you are banking on him staying on the field.

The Astros got Lance McCullers, Jr., to forego free agency earlier this week, and the 5 year, $85 million deal is a reflection of the fact that McCullers has been good when on the field, but has missed significant time due to injuries (and its worth noting that there have been questions dating back to when he was drafted about whether McCullers’ arm would be able to handle a starter’s workload). The Astros sought to get a similar discount for Correa based on his injury history, and Correa — smartly, I think — is choosing to take his chances in free agency.

The Rangers just traded a shortstop whose career has been hampered due to long term back issues, and that is going to be an enormous concern for whomever is interested in signing Correa this offseason. The Rangers also just finished up a seven year contract with a player whose time with the Rangers was hindered by back problems. The Rangers may not want to go down that track again, even with someone with the talent of Correa.

However...the talent is undeniable. For his career Correa has been a 6.5 bWAR/150 game player, which is superstar territory. He’s two years younger than Trevor Story, who has been the primary topic of discussion of late when speaking of Rangers free agent shortstop targets. Whoever signs Correa will be getting him in his prime — even an eight year deal means his final year would be in his age 34 season. A team that signs Correa is getting — if he stays healthy — one of the best players in the game.

I’m hoping the Rangers see enough progress in 2021 that they will be in a position to make some tough calls on some big time moves this coming offseason. And whether to bet on Carlos Correa will be up near the top of the list.