Monday, November 22, 2021

A Discussion on Carlos Correa's Free Agency (Plus Some Elaborations)

Over at The Crawfish Boxes, I participated on a site discussion about the Astros’ attempts to re-sign Carlos Correa. You should go check it out! And when you’re done, I have a few more thoughts over here, expanding on my part.

One thing that I mentioned was the idea that it’s better for team building to rely on one star rather than multiple players. It’s pretty generalized, but the example I included does a good job with it: one player worth 5 Wins Above Replacement is more valuable than two 2.5-WAR players, for the same reason those two players are better than five 1-WAR players.

Because it’s not just the one 5-WAR player you’re getting in the first scenario; you still have to fill those other roster spots that the two-player and five-player options. There’s no option to just run a 24-man or 22-man roster. And if you’ve done your job right, those other roster spots should be worth more than 0 Wins, so the actual trade-off is 2.5+2.5 versus 5+(something else).

Of course, the catch here is all hypothetical and cost-independent. When teams have managed to circumvent this, it’s been by more efficiently allocating the same resources. To provide another oversimplified example, if the team that goes for the 5-WAR player doesn’t know what they’re doing and does get a 0-Win player as back-up, while the 2.5-WAR players have higher ceilings (maybe they’re coming back from injury, or have untapped potential or something, so the 2.5 estimate is inaccurate). Of course, that’s a trade-off that will depend heavily on the specifics.

That’s part of the problem with the shortstop question here. We don’t really know the cost specifics yet. Free agent negotiations are complicated. Carlos Correa might want a Lindor-size deal, like Cody reported in the original article, but he’s not the only party deciding this. Another team has to decide to give him that, and while there are other teams trying to sign him to bid the eventual winner up, there are also plenty of other shortstop options for those other teams to consider this winter, including Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, and Javier Báez. And of course, we largely aren’t going to be privy to any of these processes.

We are dealing with a lot of unknown variables here*, which is why I tend to retreat to the abstracts for now. Or, like I pose during the article itself, it’s especially easy to say “I don’t want Correa Correa at $300 million over ten years, let’s just sign Trevor Story instead” when you don’t actually know what the market for Story is. We can make guesses, like maybe Story will sign for below-market because of his 2021 season, but there might be multiple teams who have that same thought and bid him up anyway (especially if all of them think he’ll bounce back, which might in turn improve his ask).

*And none of this is even getting into whatever changes to the game’s financial structures the new CBA institutes. I’ll be working with what’s in place when necessary for lack of a better option, but the main balance I’ll be getting at is the balance of Player Value versus Dollars Spent, which should be relatively unaffected by any changes.

So, as an outside observer with few specifics, I tend to go with the broadest case; sign the best player you can. In that regard, Seager (who’s a year older) is the only one who matches Correa in peak and age, even with both of their injury concerns. Semien has matched their peaks, especially recently, but he’s four years older than Correa, so any deal for him will be missing out on his ages 27 through 30 seasons and likely comes with more risk as a result. Story and Baez are both two seasons older (so again, you’re losing two peak seasons to work with), and you need to contend with their own questions (Story’s downturn last year, Baez’s lack of a batting eye). Maybe one of them sees their price drop as a result of those issues, maybe there’s something teams see in them that make their specific risks manageable, but again it’s hard to know all of that right now.

And for my final point of the article, there really isn’t anyone like Correa or Seager for the next few years. I had to do a brief scan in real time to keep up with the discussion, but even with more time to go over it, the pickings look pretty slim. Here’s the 2022-23 Free Agent Class; the only players with recent MVP-level performance (leaving aside the players with options, since those will likely be picked up) are Trea Turner and Aaron Judge. Turner as a free agent will be three years older than Correa as a free agent, so you’re again missing out on three peak seasons in whatever deal he signs (in addition to not having a star in his spot for the 2022 season). Judge is a year older than Turner.

The next year is a stronger class, but there isn’t a clear better choice. José Ramírez and Matt Chapman are the most obvious picks, but they’ll be coming off their age thirty seasons (so again, you’re missing out on four years in your deal and forgoing a star for the next two seasons). Cody Bellinger will be 27, but has… whatever has been his issue for the last two seasons; even if he returns to MVP-form, I’d find this two-year valley much more worrisome than Correa or Seager’s injuries. Maybe Manny Machado will opt out of his deal following his age-30 season, but I certainly wouldn’t be putting all my eggs in that basket this early.

(I guess if you make it to 2025, you have a shot at 26-year-old Juan Soto, but even then, you’re gambling on the Nationals not locking him up before then, on top of all other uncertainty that comes with being a free agent deal that will not be starting until four seasons from now. And for the Astros, at that point, Kyle Tucker and Yordan Álvarez’s free agencies will be looming in the next winter, although Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman’s deals will be coming off the books at that point as well.)

As I said in the piece, if it makes you feel better, you can think of it as an incentive to spend on Correa now; there are no stars like him the next few years, no one to worry about missing out on in the meantime. Absent the specifics of the negotiations (a big asterisk, to be sure), there’s no reason not to be trying hard to lock him up right now.

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