This offseason has seen an avalanche of activity early on, with 22 of our top 25 free agents signing before Christmas. But last night, we somehow doubled up. After an undisclosed medical issue held up the official announcement of Carlos Correa’s contract with the Giants, the entire deal fell through, and the Mets stepped into the fray, signing Correa to a 12-year, $315 million deal this morning, as Jon Heyman first reported.
I’ll let that breathe for a second so that you can think about it. The Giants went from laying out $350 million and adding a cornerstone player to their roster for more than a decade to nothing at all. The Mets went from a big free agency haul to an unprecedented one. Correa is going from shortstop to third base, and maybe losing one gaudy vacation home in the process when all is said and done.
The Mets had already spent heavily this offseason to shore up their pitching. With Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt, and Taijuan Walker all leaving in free agency, the team had a lot of high-quality innings to replace, and they did so in volume, adding Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga, and José Quintana. Those were in effect like-for-like moves, as was signing Edwin Díaz, Adam Ottavino and Brandon Nimmo after they reached free agency. The 2023 Mets stood to look a lot like the 2022 Mets in broad shape – most of their additions were either swaps (deGrom for Verlander) or small (Omar Narváez will be a platoon catcher, David Robertson will shore up the bullpen).
Much had been made of owner Steve Cohen’s willingness to go over the competitive balance tax threshold put in place largely because of him – the so-called “Cohen tax” kicks in at $60 million above the first CBT level and charges teams a 90% tax for every dollar spent. Merely in the above moves, which were mostly lateral ones, the Mets ran up a projected 2023 CBT payroll of $362.2 million, well above the $293.3 million line where the highest tax bracket kicks in.
I didn’t find that particularly shocking. The Mets were a great team last year, eclipsing 100 wins for the first time since 1988. Replicating that finish – or at least that talent level – was going to cost more, what with many key contributors hitting free agency and all. Cohen has made no secret of his willingness to spend to build a contender, and he’d already done just that over the past two offseasons. The owners put in a Cohen tax in last year’s collective bargaining agreement, and they didn’t do it for no reason: There was a widespread expectation that Cohen would be willing to spend quite a bit to make the Mets perennial contenders.
They already looked like that before signing Correa, though. They had the third-best offense in baseball last year by wRC+, the fourth-best collection of position players by WAR. After bringing Nimmo back, they figured to run out an identical group in 2023, and perhaps slightly better than that after accounting for Narváez and top prospect Francisco Álvarez.
By adding Correa, the Mets have kicked their offense and payroll up a notch each. Their projected CBT payroll, per FanGraphs salary guru Jon Becker, is now $388.4 million. Assuming no further changes to their team, that would result in a tax bill of $115 million, easily the highest in history. They’ll also boast the highest payroll in baseball history, as well as the most free agent spending in a single year ever. Counting Correa’s deal, the Mets have guaranteed $806 million in contracts this offseason. The previous high was last year’s Rangers team, which checked in at $584.5 million thanks to big contracts for Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. The Mets have gone from big spenders to a wholly different category.
In doing so, they’ve built a truly fearsome lineup. Incumbent third baseman Eduardo Escobar was hardly a weak link last year; he was a solid contributor with an above-average batting line. If you were looking for a place the Mets could improve, it would be catcher, where they already signed Narváez, and perhaps overall depth. Or they could just add one of the 10 best hitters in baseball, sure, why not.
Correa is very much a luxury addition to that already-excellent offense. He’ll push Escobar to a utility role, while making the top of the lineup perhaps the most formidable in the game. Nimmo, Correa, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, and Jeff McNeil are going to give NL East pitchers nightmares. The lineup will be staggeringly deep, too: Mark Canha is slated to bat eighth, and he’s posted a wRC+ of 115 or higher in each of the past five seasons. There won’t even be much drop-off when someone rests: Escobar can slot in comfortably at second or third, Correa can handle shortstop when Lindor needs a breather and let Escobar take third, and McNeil can slide to either outfield corner from second base as needed. The Mets’ lineup on the days when someone is resting will still be one of the best in baseball.
I don’t think you came to this article to read about Correa’s lineup contributions, though. You already know how good Correa is. Dan Szymborski covered his initial deal with the Giants, and noted that Correa has the highest projected career WAR of any current shortstop, narrowly edging out Lindor. Or, well, had: Correa is now a third baseman, of course. You came here to read about the drama of it all, and what the voided contract with the Giants means.
I’m not sure exactly what to make of the medical concerns that scuttled Correa’s initial deal. They’re obviously not public, and will likely never be leaked – medical records are far more protected than contract details by law. Correa dealt with intermittent injury issues early in his career, but has been reliably available for the past three seasons; he’s batted just 45 times fewer than Lindor in that interval, and while he missed time in 2022, it was because of a stay on the COVID-19 IL and a short second trip when he fouled a ball off of his finger. ZiPS projects him for 592 plate appearances in 2023, which is nearly the top of the scale when it comes to projected playing time.
Speculating beyond that is outside my area of expertise. I couldn’t tell you what concerns the Giants raised, and whether they were motivated by a desire to renegotiate the deal or by worry about Correa’s availability. It’s also unclear how severe the Giants’ concerns even were in the first place; it’s possible that the deal would have gone through eventually, or that they’d have asked to take a year off of the pact, or something of that nature. The team will likely never fully explain their decision, and the best we have to go on is a statement released by Farhan Zaidi: “While we are prohibited from disclosing confidential medical information, as Scott Boras stated publicly, there was a difference of opinion over the results of Carlos’ physical examination. We wish Carlos the best.”
The Giants’ pursuit of Correa made a lot of sense to me from a team-building standpoint, but they didn’t seem to approach their offseason that way. The team’s main push was for local product Aaron Judge, and you couldn’t walk into a Bay Area coffee shop in November without hearing a theory about why Judge secretly planned on heading home and spurning the Yankees. The Correa deal fell into place quickly after Judge re-upped, and it had the feel of “well we have this money, let’s get a big name” to it.
While Correa might have been a consolation prize in fans’ minds, not having Correa is much worse than that. The Giants were a .500 team last year, and their division isn’t getting any easier. The Padres might be the best team in baseball on paper – unless the Mets are now. Meanwhile, the Giants aren’t even clearly better than they were last year.
San Francisco’s offseason plan seemed straightforward – sign one big ticket hitter and a number of pitchers with upside. There’s no one left to sign on the hitting side, though: the best remaining hitter is probably Jean Segura, and he’s more role player than star. They’re caught in between, and while they clearly came into this offseason with a plan to increase payroll and bulk up their lineup, they’re going to end up with a similar payroll and only Mitch Haniger added offensively. Baseball teams care about far more than just what happens next year, but woof: what’s happening in the Bay next year certainly appears to be another year of being caught in between.
It’s not at all clear that the Giants feared losing Correa when they held up his official announcement over medical concerns. They likely expected to re-work his deal, or perhaps to send it through as-is after further time to scrutinize the findings. But deals aren’t final until they’re final, of course: when the Giants held up making things official, it opened the door to other possibilities. Cohen and agent Scott Boras reportedly negotiated the Mets deal using the framework of New York’s previous offer, which let them move quickly.
There hasn’t been a medicals-scuttled contract of anything approaching this magnitude before. The Orioles are famous for having particularly strict medical examinations, and they’d been involved in the three previous highest-profile ones. In 2000, they reneged on an offer to Aaron Sele over medicals, and he signed with the Mariners instead. Grant Balfour failed a physical with the Orioles and ended up signing with the Rays for $3 million less in 2013. Yovani Gallardo renegotiated his deal with Baltimore after medical concerns. But these are all penny ante compared to what happened yesterday.
I don’t think we’ll be able to measure who “won” and “lost” in this deal for a very long time, but I’m also skeptical that a framework of “winning” and “losing” is really the right way to approach this deal. For the Mets, the takeaway is clear: the whole concept of dollars per win doesn’t really apply. They’re interested in building a great team, and securing core players who will contribute for years to come. If they were trying to compete in terms of most efficiently allocating dollars, they’d clearly have been out; their outlays are meaningfully higher than San Francisco’s thanks to the CBT penalties.
If the Mets are truly trying to build Dodgers East, I think this is a smart way to go about it, and I’ve always thought that the best use of Cohen’s money is in signing superstars that the team can build around. Lindor was the first example of that, and Correa is in the same tier. I’m much more confident in teams’ ability to turn a good development system into excellent role players than I am in anyone’s ability to predict true MVP-level players. Those are few and far between, and I’m in favor of adding them when possible.
Does this deal make sense financially? Let me put it this way – Steve Cohen thinks so. The man isn’t exactly famous for being bad at making money. Baseball’s financial system is set up to let big-market teams flex their spending muscle; teams had treated it like a hard cap throughout the previous CBA, but there’s no reason that had to be the case. I don’t know what the exact point of owning a sports team is, but winning championships and having something to be proud of is surely a lot of it, particularly for billionaires whose fortunes are so vast that money is more about keeping score than anything else. It’s not even like Cohen is exploiting some loophole; you’re allowed to spend as much as you want.
I’d be surprised if the Mets are still running payrolls this high in five years. They’re notably light on pre-arbitration contributors at the moment, the key component that allows teams to run relatively light payrolls while contending for division titles and championships. That fact surely hasn’t escaped their front office’s attention. But if they keep spending big, so what? Sports fans always wish their owners would open the purse strings and go the extra mile. Cohen is doing it.
As for the Giants, your view of this deal comes down to how much you trust them, more or less. They put together a spectacular team in 2021, winning 107 games to wrest the NL West away from the Dodgers. They fell back to earth this year, and they don’t have a notably good farm system or an obviously playoff-worthy major league roster. They’ve shown an ability to build a winner by getting the most out of role players, but I look at their roster and struggle to see how they’ll win 90 games, let alone 100.
One way or another, the Giants need stars, tremendous talents to make their skill at deploying role players move the team from 90 to 95 wins rather than 80 to 85. They could develop them from their own prospects, though that’s always a crapshoot. They could theoretically trade for them; it works for the Cardinals. Or they could sign them, as they were trying to do this season. It’s not quite fair to say that they’ve sacrificed 2023 in pursuit of a mystery box next offseason, but look at it this way: they have that money to spend, they were clearly willing to spend it on someone of Correa’s caliber, and now they aren’t spending it.
Perhaps in a year this will all feel silly; maybe they’ll trade for Fernando Tatis Jr. or sign Shohei Ohtani. Maybe they’ll sign Rafael Devers and Aaron Nola. It’s hard to judge the Giants without knowing what they do instead. It hurts for 2023, but maybe it won’t hurt long-term. There’s no way to know.
That uncertainty is part of the cost, though. The Giants are going to spend a year in a holding period, hoping to sneak into the playoffs but mostly waiting to see how they can pivot to another star. They’ve assembled a fairly good team but one that needed more impact players; it feels like a huge missed opportunity to come away from free agency worse than the team was in 2022.
At the end of the day, that’s my read on this wild situation: the Mets got better while the Giants got less certain. In 10 years, we’ll be able to look at the ex post facto tale of the tape and see how each side made out. For now, it’s all a matter of degrees of expectation. I think what the Mets did makes a ton of sense. I’m sure the Giants didn’t think this would turn out the way it did. At the moment, I can’t say anything more than that. But ZiPS can – as a postscript to this long-winded shrug, here’s what it thinks of Correa as a third baseman in Queens:
ZiPS Projection – Carlos Correa
ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Carlos Correa (590 PA)