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Tigers can afford to sign Carlos Correa

The process must play out, but cost should not be an obstacle

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball’s free agent season is underway and with a lockout and accompanying transaction freeze looming, the Carlos Correa coaster is speeding right along. Up, down, up, down, full speed ahead.

It’s easy to get caught up in a game of speculation, or to take tweets and rumors all too seriously during free agent season. The Detroit Tigers are known to be intent on acquiring a shortstop, among other players, and the early speculation- was that they were a front runner for the services of Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, the consensus top free agent on the market.

Speculation rages

With the Tigers already leading the speculation poll due to their obvious need and Correa’s ties to his former manager AJ Hinch, now Detroit’s manager, the rumor mill was sent soaring when the two were spotted having breakfast in Houston last week. More gas on the fire.

Of course, it can’t be that easy. The rumor bubble burst when MLB network’s Jon Heyman tweeted that Correa’s price tag might be just too rich for the Tigers.

What “other needs” he is referring to are unclear. With a catcher and at least one starting pitcher locked up, is there another cost prohibitive need that would preclude signing Correa? They’re reportedly set elsewhere.

Heyman’s latest tweet was met with angry comments from Tigers’ fans who have seen their team slash payroll by over $ 100 million over the past four seasons, and are tired of the tank-a-thon. There have also been comments justifying the cautious approach, saying that the team should not be “hamstrung” by a long term contract for one player- citing Miguel Cabrera’s current eight year deal, with two years and $72 million remaining on the contract, for example. Of course, it’s worth remembering that Cabrera’s final deal was signed when he was already 33 years old and had played through major injuries for consecutive seasons.

Before we take any public or leaked comments or sentiments expressed as accurate, it’s also worth remembering that the Tigers have made no secret of their interest in Correa all along, despite knowing the likely cost. If they were suddenly shocked to find that it would likely cost at least $300 million, they haven’t been paying attention, and we’re quite confident that isn’t the case.

The perfect fit

Correa is the perfect fit for Detroit.

  • Shortstop is the Tigers weakest position in the lineup- by far. Detroit ranked 14th of 15 American league teams with a 72 wRC+ with fWAR of -0.1 runs below replacement level at the position in 2021. The team’s shortstops combined for a slash line of .227/ .288/ .343
  • Shortstop is the Tigers weakest position defensively- by far. With a league worst -35.8 UZR and a nauseating -35 defensive runs saved, the position is a black hole in the team’s defense.
  • While the team managed to find above average production from several positions, and have internal solutions to upgrade first base and second base, they have no answer at shortstop, either presently or in the future.
  • Detroit’s lineup lacks middle of the order bats. No Tiger ranked higher than 35th in the league in WAR, nor higher than 39th in wRC+ (minimum 300 plate appearances). The club ranked 13th in the AL in home runs, and 12th in slugging.
  • Correa is an elite player both offensively and defensively. He ranked fourth in the league in fWAR, 11th wOBA, and led all shortstops with 20- that’s twenty defensive runs saved. At age 27, he is in the primer of his career and can be expected to play for many years, health permitting. He is just what the doctor ordered.

The competition

The Tigers are not the only team interested in Correa, naturally. The Yankees, Rangers, Angels, Mariners, Phillies and Cardinals also are in the market for a new shortstop. So there is competition enough to drive up the bidding- perhaps as high as the $341 million over ten years that Francisco Lindor signed to remain with the New York Mets. But there is also a free agent class that is filthy rich at the shortstop position- enough to give a quality player to every team looking for a shortstop.

  • The Yankees are interested in signing one of the premium shortstops, but will they blow any hope they had of getting under the yet to be determined tax threshold for 2022? A report from the New York Daily News suggests that they are merely “monitoring” the shortstop situation and might prefer a trade.
  • The Rangers are also in the mix with a $50 million payroll and no real shortstop on the roster.
  • Seattle has a similarly low payroll and are in need of an upgrade from JP Crawford, who has three seasons of club control remaining.
  • The Phillies have Didi Gregorious for another season at $15.2 million- the fifth highest salary on their payroll.
  • The Cardinals have Paul deJong under contract for at least two more seasons.

If Correa’s asking price is too rich for Detroit, one could expect most of these other clubs to be hesitant as well. But it’s an asking price, and free agency is a process.

The Tigers can afford Correa

First of all, the Tigers can afford to pay Correa. The team is on target for an opening day payroll, after signing Eduardo Rodrighez, of $100.2 million. That includes estimates for arbitration eligible players before any other free agents are signed or players non tendered.

The MLB average payroll is $111.1 million, with almost an entire free agent class of players yet to be signed. In 2021, the average was closer to $130 million. The division champion Chicago White Sox are on target for an opening day total of $ 163 million.

The Tigers could add $30 million to the payroll and probably still come in about league average, depending how things shake out by April with free agent signings, non tenders, and adjustments to the minimum salary in a new collective bargaining agreement.

Speaking of Cabrera, there will be another $32 million per season coming off the books after the 2023 season when he will retire. The team will have a minimal number of contracts expiring by then, with Jeimer Candelario being potentially the most expensive to extend or replace.

Arbitration costs will be modest over the next two seasons, with only Candelario currently earning over $2 million. The team’s young trio of pitchers won’t hit them until the post- Cabrera era and they are hopeful that the farm system will produce a number of cost controlled replacements, beginning with Spencer Torkelson and Riley Green during the upcoming season.

At the same time, the team just signed a new multi year contract with Bally Sports Detroit. The old deal was reported to be $50 million per season and a new contract could be worth up to twice as much- although details have not been disclosed. MLB just signed new national contracts with Fox, Turner Broadcasting and ESPN for a total of $ 12.7 billion over seven years that will increase revenues for all teams. That number will be even higher if and when playoffs expand to 12 or 14 teams.

The Tigers took a smaller hit for the COVID shortened 2020 season than just about any other MLB team. Compensation for signing a qualified free agent will be the lowest possible penalty- their third highest draft pick. The club is also now a revenue sharing recipient with a loyal fan base that has a recent history of topping three million fans in attendance when the team is winning.

Reasonable expectations

Nobody is expecting, nor asking for the Tigers to approach their previous levels of $200 million payrolls, when they were subject to paying a luxury tax. And nobody is expecting the club to operate in the red in order to pay lucrative player salaries. But Tigers’ fans absolutely expect the team to spend enough to be competitive in their division while still running a profitable business.

The Tigers have an excellent chance to sign Correa, and they can afford to do so. It is understandable that they would first like to see how the market plays out and not bid against themselves. Maybe there isn’t another $300 million/10-year offer on the table for his services. Or maybe the Yankees will give him a Lindor-level $341 million contract.

Reports can have a chilling effect on expectations, and maybe that is the intent of leaking such speculative information. It would not be at all surprising if Correa’s agent opened the bidding with Lindor’s contract, causing the Tigers- and other teams to pause.

The highest-paid shortstops, by average annual value:

1. Francisco Lindor, $34,100,000 (2022-31)

2. Fernando Tatis, $24,285,714 (2021-34)

3. Xander Bogaerts, $20,000,000 (2020-25)

If the Tigers don’t sign Correa, maybe they sign Trevor Story or Marcus Semien for a whole lot less. They would still upgrade their offense, defense, and middle of the lineup for several seasons. That’s worth exploring, and due diligence requires multiple inquiries. Being able to afford Correa doesn’t mean that doing so is the best move. But he is the ideal fit for the team, and the Tigers can afford to sign him.