Though the Houston Astros tried to extend star shortstop Carlos Correa during spring training, their best offer only got as good as six years and $125 million. By rejecting it, Correa effectively chose to bet on himself to have a huge walk year ahead of free agency.
So far, so very good.
Through 58 games, Correa is hitting a sturdy .290/.375/.500 with 11 home runs. Baseball Reference puts his wins above replacement at 2.8, which is fourth among American League position players and second to Fernando Tatis Jr. among shortstops.
At this rate, Correa would be worth well more than $125 million even as he shares the upcoming free-agent market with fellow 20-something star shortstops Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Javier Baez. He might even have it in mind to rise to the same $340 million stratosphere that Tatis (here) and Francisco Lindor (here) reached this spring.
Correa was actually one of the first people to speak to Lindor after he agreed to his 10-year, $341 million deal with the New York Mets. Understandably, the whole thing had him excited.
“I love it,” Correa said. “It’s a great contract. He deserves every penny of it. I congratulated him. He pushed the market for every shortstop coming after him, and it’s always great to see a great player get rewarded like that.”
It perhaps bodes well for Correa that, just as Lindor was when he signed on the dotted line, he'll be coming off his age-26 season this winter. And at least for now, it's hard to argue that Correa is any less deserving of a mega-deal.
Carlos Correa's Resume
- 26 years old
- No. 1 overall pick in 2012
- MLB debut on June 8, 2015
- American League Rookie of the Year for 2015
- All-Star and World Series champion in 2017
- Career stats: 662 G, 2,839 PA, 118 HR, 33 SB, .277 AVG, .355 OBP, .482 SLG, 128 OPS+, 29.6 rWAR
How Correa Went from Cold to Hot
Coming into 2021, the story of Correa's major league journey was a tale of two careers.
In the beginning, he was an obvious superstar by way of a 137 OPS+ and shortstop-high 18.5 rWAR over 361 games between 2015 and 2017. But between 2018 and 2020, the "superstar" label didn't fit him quite as well as he mustered a 111 OPS+ and 8.4 rWAR in 243 games.
Specifically including back problems that cost him games in 2018 and 2019 and a broken rib that cost him additional time in the latter, injuries didn't help Correa's cause in the latter trio of seasons. He was otherwise just inconsistent offensively.
So it went in the early weeks of this season, but not so much lately:
If the question is what changed for the Puerto Rico native, there's actually a specific answer relating to his hitting mechanics. At the behest of hitting coaches Alex Cintron and Troy Snitker, he's done away with his leg kick in favor of a "gather step."
As Correa explained: "I’ve been stepping before lifting the leg, and it’s keeping me a lot shorter, giving me more time to see the ball and drive it. From the moment I did it, it started paying off. I’ve been doing it since then.”
You can see the difference when comparing this home run against the Los Angeles Angels from April 6:
To this one against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday:
It's subtle, but Correa now has a slight toe tap before he goes into his leg kick, which itself is also less exaggerated. Such a change wouldn't necessarily work for other hitters, but it's clearly working for him.
Even beyond his surface-level results, there's how Correa's walk-to-strikeout ratio has improved from 0.35 through May 11 to 1.50 since May 12. His hard-hit rate has also improved from 43.1 to 47.4 percent.
Per his 142 OPS+, Correa is ultimately having a better offensive season than all but three other shortstops. And in spite of the bumps he hit between 2018 and 2020, his 128 OPS+ since 2015 is tied for the best among players with 500 or more games at shortstop.
Let's Also Not Forget About Correa's Defense
After the Astros drafted Correa back in 2012, Baseball America's report on him mentioned there was "some concern he'll outgrow shortstop as he matures physically."
Because Correa had yet to fill out his 6'4" frame, that seemed fair enough at the time. And while he initially rated well by defensive runs saved in 2015 and 2016, he was in the red for ultimate zone rating and outs above average.
But instead of moving Correa to third base, where his size and arm strength would have been a natural fit, the Astros made it a priority to improve his defense at short during spring training for the 2018 season. In particular, they wanted him to be quicker at the crack of the bat.
Three-plus seasons later, those efforts are still paying off.
Though UZR remains relatively skeptical of Correa's glovework, since 2018 he's tied for third in DRS and fourth in OAA among shortstops. Apropos of first-step quickness, the latter specifically points to how much better Correa has gotten at coming in on the ball.
So good was Correa on defense in 2020 that he was named as a finalist for what would have been his first Gold Glove. Because he's once again among the top shortstops for both DRS and OAA, he's bound to be in that conversation again come the end of 2021.
Could Anything Hurt Correa in Free Agency?
All told, Correa is positioning himself to enter the open market with credentials as both an outstanding offensive and defensive shortstop. Between that and the established market for young star shortstops, he's going to be a shoo-in for a $340 million mega-deal, right?
It's certainly possible, yet the potential pitfalls ahead of Correa aren't invisible.
For starters, him maintaining his current offensive performance will require a level of consistency that he simply hasn't had in recent seasons. Even now, the glass-half-empty perspective of his 2021 output is that he was bad for longer (34 games) than he's been good (24 games).
If Correa does regress down the stretch, the 155 OPS+ that he had in 2017 will keep its place as his offensive peak. That's not the best look, given that 2017 was also the year in which the Astros carried out their infamous sign-stealing scheme. And according to numbers compiled by Astros fan Tony Adams, Correa wasn't an innocent bystander in all that.
If these things don't keep Correa from a $340 million contract, things that could include his history with injuries and inconsistency. Even assuming that MLB and the MLB Players Association circumvent a work stoppage with a new collective bargaining agreement, the law of supply and demand could also bite Correa. As in, this winter might contain more young shortstops looking for big bucks than teams willing to spend big bucks on a young shortstop.
There is, however, no denying that Correa's stock is in better shape than that of his presumed competition on the winter market. Story (elbow) and Seager (hand) are on the injured list, while Baez has a league-high-tying 80 strikeouts and a .276 OBP.
Plus, it's likely that teams will be more willing to spend money this winter than they were during the 2020-21 offseason after losing billions amid the league's shortened and fan-less 2020 season. Things are already getting back to normal now, and there's seemingly little reason to expect that things won't be all the way back to normal come 2022.
So if any of this winter's top free-agent shortstops is going to join Tatis and Lindor in the $300 Million Club, chances are it will be Correa. He'll just need to remain healthy and productive through the end of the season, and then wait for the calls to start coming in.