On Sunday evening, qualifying offers were due from MLB teams to eligible players. The Houston Astros extending qualifying offers, worth $18.4M, to both Justin Verlander and star shortstop Carlos Correa. This was obviously not a surprise. However, the Astros also reportedly made a final bid on a long-term deal to Correa, though it seems designed more to cover themselves than to actually convince Correa to sign.
While Correa might not land the 10-year, $341M deal that Francisco Lindor got from the New York Mets last year, the latest offer made by the Astros doesn’t even come close. Reportedly, their final offer to Correa recently was five years, $160M, giving him an annual average value (AAV) of $32M per season. As far as AAV goes, that’s pretty good, but this just isn’t a serious attempt to keep him.
Meanwhile, predictions of Correa to the Tigers continue to flow in. Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com projects Correa to Detroit. So do numerous other pundits. But while it’s certainly reasonable to suggest that the Tigers are a likely landing spot, predictions and baseball generally don’t go well, which is part of the charm. We’re certainly no better at predictions than anyone else, but more and more there does seem to be a consensus around Correa going to the New York Yankees or the Detroit Tigers for him.
Here, on the opening day of free agency, let’s start with the number one target on the shopping list.
The Tigers need is great
The reason Correa is getting projected to Detroit isn’t just because of his connection to manager A.J. Hinch. The shortstop position is the single biggest problem in the Tigers organization, and it isn’t close.
Per FanGraphs WAR calculation, only the Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates got less production out of the shortstop position than the Tigers in 2021. There are certainly other positional weak points, but with first baseman Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene due to debut in 2022, shortstop is really the only position that is wide open and in dire need of a major upgrade and which the Tigers don’t have a good answer for.
Only three American League teams - Kansas City, Baltimore, and the Texas Rangers - scored fewer runs than the Tigers in 2021. They ended the season tied with the Seattle Mariners at 697 runs scored. Clearly, even if the postseason expands to seven teams per league as has been suggested by the owners and the league, the Tigers need to push that number a good deal higher.
In defensive terms, the Tigers were also right near the bottom, finishing second worst in defensive runs saved in the American League at the shortstop position in particular. Manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter are very big on coordinating their pitching plans and defensive positioning, and did so with a lot of success in 2021, but too often would-be double play balls weren’t turned over in time to first base. The Tigers middle infield left quite a few outs on the table over the course of the season, often at crucial times with runners on base. They have to do better next season.
Correa would help enormously in both regards. He was worth 21 defensive runs saved in 2021, best among shortstops. Per Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he was sixth best among shortstops. So while defensive metrics are still rather sketchy, there is plenty of consensus that Correa is one of the elite defensive shortstops out there. So, not only do you get an impact bat who was 24th best in wRC+ last season, you get a good defensive shortstop with one of the strongest arms at the position in the game. When the time comes for him to move off of shortstop he should prove a good third baseman for many more years to come.
Beyond this, we’re not going to belabor the point. Carlos Correa is not quite Juan Soto or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a hitter, but he is really good on both sides of the ball, he just turned 27 last month, and signing him would immediately make the Tigers a team to watch in 2022. If their young core of developing prospect talent makes good, they could be a threat to the whole league over the next two years. Particularly as owners and the league will insist on an expanded playoff schedule next season, the Tigers have every reason to sign Correa, add pitching, and give themselves a good shot.
What will Correa cost?
In 2021, his age 26 season, Correa was worth 5.8 WAR by FanGraphs’ model, and 7.3 WAR per Baseball Reference’s calculation. You can probably split the difference and get his projected marks over the next five years, with notable decline starting to set in beyond that point. Even assuming just five fWAR over each of the next five years, that’s 25 WAR, or roughly $200M in value assuming each win costs eight million, which is basically the value paid per WAR in free agency over the past three seasons combined. Of course, no owner really wants to pay $40M a year for one player, which is why these things get extended over longer terms.
A fair estimate of Correa’s likely contract is nine years, $297M from FanGraphs. The Tigers could work that to pay him less than $30M a year over the first two years, enabling some flexibility, and then make it up with a big jump in the years after Miguel Cabrera’s monster deal expires after the 2023 season.
Can the Tigers afford him?
Yes, easily. Next question.
Ok, it’s not so simple these days. While his father routinely ran the payroll up over $200M in the middle of the last decade, we’ve yet to get any sense of where the younger Ilitch’s ceiling might top out. So far there have been reasons to be skeptical, though the time for spending on free agents is only now at hand. And Al Avila has been pretty upfront that the Tigers are trying to make the playoffs next season, but it depends on how seriously they take that goal.
Currently Spotrac has the projected payroll at $83M with potentially $13M to cut in non-tender candidates like Niko Goodrum, Victor Reyes, Matt Boyd, and Dustin Garneau that could come off the books. League average payroll in 2021 was $128M. One way or the other, the Tigers should be able to spend $50M more per year and still be right around the league average mark. With Jonathan Schoop, Robbie Grossman off the payroll beyond 2022, and Miguel Cabrera beyond 2023, there will be another window where the Tigers have plenty of payroll flexibility in two years, and Correa’s deal won’t be a problem at all beyond that point.
League average for the Tigers’ payroll is more or less where we should set our expectations. Not because Chris Ilitch is guaranteed to spend that much, but because that feels like a reasonable ask as a fanbase after years of misery in a mid-sized market. If Ilitch isn’t willing to spend that much on this team, we’re going to have to see Tampa Bay Rays’ levels of creativity in signings and trades to give them a fighting chance in the years to come. That doesn’t seem like a reasonable expectation just yet. Having ownership committed to filling the one black hole organizationally - the shortstop position - while still having some means to reinforce the pitching staff, seems a lot more reasonable.
Ultimately, the Tigers are far more likely to find and/or develop some undervalued pitching than to pull a top-tier shortstop out of their hat. That will remain true for years to come. The options for upgrading a pitching staff are legion. Not so for the shortstop position. Feel free to shock us with some genius trade, Tigers. But it’s just one of those problems in a roster that is almost impossible to address in a creative way. Dream of those sweet, sweet postseason revenues and take a chance.
Correa or bust
One of our favorite hobbies here at Bless You Boys is trying to scheme for out-of-the-box solutions to problems. Trust us, we’d love to come up with a genius solution to the shortstop issue that would preserve tons of payroll flexibility and yet legitimately push the Tigers into contention. However, after weeks of researching and thinking about the issue, Correa is not only the best solution, he’s possibly the only viable solution as well.
We liked Trevor Story as a somewhat cheaper option until his history of elbow trouble reared its head in 2021. Corey Seager is Correa’s equal as a hitter, but as a defender he’s lacking. Perhaps more to the point, Seager doesn’t have the same ties to the Tigers as Correa does through Hinch. Maybe he’d be willing to come here for a huge overpay, but neither he, nor the other popular free agent option, Marcus Semien, really have much reason to consider the Tigers as both will have substantial offers from big market teams on the coasts. Correa will have those offers as well, but at least there’s the possibility that he and Hinch’s relationship holds his attention.
Beyond the other free agents, there just isn’t a likely trade available, either. Take a look through the shortstops slated to reach free agency in the next two offseasons. We’re not trading for Trea Turner. The Atlanta Braves seem unlikely to trade Dansby Swanson coming off a World Series title. The options just aren’t there to swing a trade for a really good shortstop. The White Sox aren’t trading us Tim Anderson. The Twins aren’t dealing Jorge Polanco to us. Perhaps Willy Adames could be an option if the Milwaukee Brewers decide to take a step back, but they traded two pretty good pitching prospects to the Tampa Bay Rays to get him. Presumably they’d want that much in return for him now if they’re even willing to deal him away in the first place.
No, the rebuilding effort has led us to the exact position where signing Carlos Correa is both the best and really the only option that could propel the Tigers into contention the next two years as Torkelson and Greene settle in and hopefully become big factors in their own right. He’s one of the few star free agents who might actually come here, and World Series are rarely won without at least one big free agent signing in the mix. This is the one. Push the easy button, Tigers. Pinch the pennies elsewhere.