It’s no secret that the Yankees are going to have a new shortstop for the 2022 season. Brian Cashman made that crystal clear during his end of season press conference last month. Good thing there are a number of good-to-great shortstops available in free agency. At the top of the list is Carlos Correa.
Correa’s not just the top shortstop free agent, mind you. He’s the best free agent out there, period, and it doesn’t seem like he’s going to return to the Astros. Houston offered Correa $160 million over five years, an amount well short of what the young shortstop will get this winter.
The Yankees will surely talk to representatives of other shortstops on the market. Those players include Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Marcus Semien (among others). All are good-to-great players in their own regard, but from my perspective, it’s hard to argue for any of those three over Correa.
Correa, who just turned 27 in September, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He attended the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, a high school that’s helped develop other major leaguers, including Christian Vázquez, Victor Caratini, and Joe Jiménez.
Although Correa committed to play college ball at the University of Miami, there wasn’t much of an expectation that he’d forgo pro ball out of high school. And as such, Houston drafted Correa with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft. The shortstop signed for a $4.8 million bonus, well below the selection’s $7.2 million slot value. Correa signed just a few days after draft day and jumped right into professional ball.
It didn’t take long for Correa to make the majors. He spent two-plus seasons in the minors before joining the Astros for good in 2015. Houston promoted him in June of that year, the same season that made the Wild Card game and defeated the Yankees in the Bronx. And thanks to an impressive .279/.345/.512 (136 wRC+) in 99 games as a 20 year-old, Correa took home American League Rookie of the Year honors.
Correa banked another stellar season in 2016 before really taking off in ’17, the year the Astros won the World Series. He made his first All-Star Game and could have been an MVP-candidate had he stayed healthy all season.
Now, it’s likely no coincidence that Correa had his best offensive campaign that year — .315/.391/.550 (152 wRC+) — considering Houston’s trash can banging scheme. Nonetheless, if we are to assume that Houston’s been clean ever since getting caught red handed, it’s not like Correa’s performance at the plate has totally cratered. That said, there have been some not-so-great seasons mixed in.
Correa has alternated good and mediocre seasons since ’17. He played in just 57 percent of team games from 2018 through 2019 (I’ll discuss his health in more detail shortly), but was far better when healthy in ’19 than ’18. In 2018, Correa batted just .239/.323/.405 (101 wRC+) in 468 plate appearances. He followed that up with a terrific .279/.358/.568 (142 wRC+) in 321 plate appearances in ’19. He didn’t finish with a great October performance — something he has a knack for — but he did hit a crushing walk-off home run against the Yankees in the 2019 ALCS.
Correa struggled in 2020, though he did play in 58 of the team’s 60 games. He batted .264/.326/.383 (96 wRC+) in the regular season, with the main issue being an uncharacteristically low power output (.119 ISO). However, he had a monster postseason: .362/.455/.766, including six homers. That was foreshadowing for his incredible 2021 regular season.
This year, Correa put together his first healthy campaign over a 162 game schedule since 2016. Granted, he was also healthy in 2020, albeit on during the shortened schedule. The shortstop hit .279/.366/.485 ( 134 wRC+) and launched a career-high 26 homers in 640 plate appearances, earning his second All-Star Game appearance.
I focused on Correa’s bat in the prior paragraphs, but let’s go over his defensive skills quickly. There was once belief that Correa would cede shortstop to Alex Bregman for defensive reasons. Plus, Correa is pretty big (6-foot-4, 220 lbs) for a shortstop, so a defensive switch seemed logical. And yet, all Correa has done is improve defensively over the years, culminating in this season’s Gold Glove award.
Stats like FRAA, UZR, and DRS never liked Correa’s defense up until this season. Statcast absolutely loathed Correa’s glove early in his career too, although he definitively turned things around by 2018. Per Statcast (OAA), Correa is best when ranging to his backhand, while he’s just about average going up the middle. There’s no doubt about his arm — he has a cannon — and all told, Correa stood in the 97th percentile of OAA this year. He’s been no lower than the 93rd percentile since 2018, by the way.
Randy and I had a bit of a debate about Correa as an injury-risk on Twitter last month. It’s also been a subject of discussion on our podcast. There’s no doubt that Correa has been hurt quite a bit in his young career and that his history of back injuries is somewhat alarming. Nonetheless, I think it’s a good sign that he hasn’t dealt with any back trouble since 2019, nor has he spent any time on the injured list due to a physical injury since that year (he was on the IL this season with COVID).
But why hasn't it popped up in two years? He's been on the IL twice for back soreness/tightness. Once in '18 and once in '19. I don't think it's that concerning at this point.— Derek Albin (@derekalbin) October 21, 2021
Could it crop up again? Sure, but so could Story's elbow. pic.twitter.com/UwBmNrBvkx
It’s never been quite clear what was wrong with Correa’s back. Those injuries have been described as “soreness” and “discomfort” over the years. But on the bright side, he’s never had to have surgery, nor has he missed months on end due to it. And again, I’d like to re-emphasize that he hasn’t missed time because of back trouble since 2019.
Correa’s other injuries don’t seem as concerning. A torn left thumb ligament in 2017 looks like one-off thing, and his rib fracture in ’19 was apparently due to a massage gone wrong. Strange, but yeah.
Look, I’m not going to pretend that a 27 year-old with a history of back soreness, even if that’s potentially in the past, isn’t concerning at all. Do I feel better about it now than I would have if he was a free agent after 2019? Absolutely. And at the same time, it’s not like there aren’t injury worries with the other free agent shortstops out there. Trevor Story’s elbow was a big concern down the stretch this season and Corey Seager has a litany of health problems in his career too.
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
It’s not often that a superstar at a premium position hits free agency at just 27 years-old. This is an opportunity that should be too good for the Yankees to pass up. Or, at the very minimum, the organization needs to at least make a legitimately competitive offer. Correa is a great hitter, does not strike out much, has become a terrific defender, and has a history of stellar postseason performances. What more could you want to fill the shortstop void?
It doesn’t matter that Anthony Volpe and/or Oswald Peraza are coming. They’re very exciting prospects, no question, but the odds of them ever being remotely as good as Correa are slim. Plus, it’s not like those guys can’t complement Correa in the infield in the future, either. Volpe may be a second baseman anyway, and perhaps Peraza’s defense is as advertised, eventually pushing Correa to the hot corner.
I’m well aware that many people are unwilling to sign Correa because of his involvement in Houston’s cheating scandal. There’s no question that it’s difficult to wrestle with as a fan. Moreover, how will he fit into a clubhouse with some remnants of the 2017 Yankees still there? For what it’s worth, Aaron Judge did mention him by name when discussing some of the upcoming free agents. Regardless, I have no expectation of a warm welcome for Correa, at least from the fanbase. And yet, I think he’d relish quieting the inevitable boos.
At the end of the day, while the scandal is a permanent scar on Correa’s career, there’s no denying that he’s an elite shortstop. He was drafted with that expectation and has proven that in his big league career. Considering team need and Correa’s ability, there’s simply no better fit for the Yankees, cheating scandal be damned.