The Tigers have spoken to representatives of all five premier shortstops on the free-agent market: Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javier Baez. While the Tigers make sense for a lot of these players, Correa is the one significantly interested in coming to Detroit.
To some on the outside, Correa becoming a Tiger seems like a slam dunk.
But not so fast.
The Tigers have not yet negotiated financial terms with Correa’s camp, so a deal is not close. With Correa’s asking price expected to reach at least $300 million, the Tigers are currently unwilling to spend that much for one player.
The slow-moving process, though, could speed up next week as teams brace for the likelihood of a lockout by MLB owners — which would freeze transactions — upon the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. (The current CBA expires at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1.)
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Behind Correa’s curiosity in the Tigers is his relationship with manager AJ Hinch. They spent five years together in Houston. Hinch managed the Astros to four playoff appearances and a 2017 World Series championship during his tenure from 2015-19.
That’s why it wasn’t surprising to see Correa and Hinch sitting at a table Thursday at the Tiny Boxwoods restaurant in Houston, where Hinch resides in the offseason. By the way, the brunch date wasn’t their first interaction since the World Series ended.
Because Hinch is more than a recruiter.
He is a trusted friend.
“Carlos is a great player,” Hinch said Nov. 11 on MLB Network. “As a manager, when you move from team to team and you carry good relationships around, there’s going to be that natural bond, that natural tie and that natural trust, to be honest.
“We’re going to get linked to a lot of people. My past and my past relationships are going to be on the forefront. Time will tell how it matches up. (Correa’s) got decisions. Other players have decisions. We’re trying to put together the best team we can as a group.”
Correa is No. 1 on the Tigers’ list of prospective shortstops. He is a Gold Glove defender, has played in three World Series over the past five years and boasts a career .277 batting average. Of the free-agent shortstops, Correa is the best combination of offense, defense and leadership, especially considering he only turned 27 in September. He is the perfect investment for a team trying to land a franchise player to lead a winning culture.
Correa is interested in the Tigers, but it’s unclear where they rank on his list. The Tigers aren’t the only team competing for his services, and he is expected to command at least $30 million annually and more than $300 million total. When it’s time to decide, players gravitate toward the money.
Take former Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole as an example.
Despite his close relationship with Hinch, Cole signed a record nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees in December 2019. The Yankees did what the Astros weren’t willing to do: Spend north of $300 million for one player.
“I had a very heartfelt conversation with him following Game 7 of the World Series,” Hinch told reporters in December 2019, one day before Cole signed with the Yankees. “I’ll cherish his words that he said to me whether he returns to our team or whether he goes on, but those are some big checks being talked about around the league, and I’m not writing them.”
Before joining the Yankees, Cole — in an easy move — declined the Astros’ one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer. This year, Correa did the same, turning down the Astros’ one-year, $18.4 million qualifying offer, because he knows he can earn far more in average annual value as a free agent.
The Astros’ reportedly offered Correa a five-year, $160 million extension (an average of $32 million a year), but that isn’t nearly enough to keep him around. According to Matthew Roberson of the New York Daily News, Correa won’t settle for less than the $341 million figure shortstop Francisco Lindor received from the New York Mets last spring.
Here’s the issue with Correa-to-Detroit: Are the Tigers willing to spend $300 million to sign Correa?
Right now, the answer is no.
The reality is the Tigers aren’t the Yankees, and they aren’t the Los Angeles Dodgers or Boston Red Sox, either. They’re a middle-market team that won’t reap the same revenue benefits if they need to manage a $200 million payroll in the future.
“Sometimes you don’t have to make a big splash,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said during his end-of-season news conference in October. “Sometimes a big splash turns out wrong for you. Going back, there’s no fear factor in signing a big contract. At the same time, we’re not looking at it as, ‘Oh, we have to make a big splash.’ It’s about making the right decisions to make this a winning team.”
Avila also added: “This is going to be a very measured process. We’re going to make sure whatever decisions we make free agency-wise don’t sink this organization for years to come, but it builds this organization for years to come.”
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It’s highly unlikely Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch will suddenly decide to increase payroll back to where it was when his late father, Mike Ilitch, was in charge. The elder Ilitch’s spending in pursuit of a World Series championship, which never came to fruition, eventually forced the Tigers to unload massive contracts and begin their rebuilding process.
There’s only one player the Tigers couldn’t get rid of: Miguel Cabrera will make $32 million in each of the next two seasons before his contract expires. He signed an eight-year extension in March 2014, just before turning 31. It didn’t begin until his age-33 season, for a total payment of $292 million over 10 years.
These days, the 38-year-old with a Hall of Fame résumé isn’t worth his price tag.
If the Tigers have learned anything from the past, it’s spending like a big-market team doesn’t equate to sustainability. They would rather find a way to consistently win as a mid-market team — a product of modest spending and player development — as opposed to rebuilding again due to overspending.
“If we can get somebody who can drive us there 100 mph, then I’ll hop in the seat and we’ll drive it,” Hinch said in October. “If not, then we’re going to have to find other ways to get to 90-plus wins. That’s what we do.”
Keep in mind the reason why the Tigers didn’t sign Justin Verlander, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery and just re-signed with the Astros on a one-year, $25 million pact, with a $25 million player option for 2023. He pitched six innings total over the past two seasons.
The Tigers didn’t want to pay $50 million for two years of Verlander, not when they could get five years of Eduardo Rodriguez for $77 million. The same is true for Max Scherzer, who is expected to sign with a big-market team for roughly $35 million in average annual value.
So, the Tigers established Rodriguez as their top target among starting pitchers, then signed him over the Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels. Rodriguez wasn’t interested in a West Coast team, but at least one other club offered him more than the Tigers. The financial numbers were close enough that it became more about fit and less about money.
That’s how the Tigers landed him to anchor their young rotation.
In the Tigers’ opinion, Verlander’s $50 million contract wasn’t a recipe for long-term sustainability. Neither is Scherzer’s asking price. Likewise, the Tigers don’t think tossing $300 million at Correa over at least an eight-year span is conducive for prolonged winning.
But the Tigers haven’t closed the door on signing Correa, especially if his market crashes.
Correa certainly didn’t endear himself to one potential landing spot earlier this week when he reportedly dissed Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter — or at least his defense — in a Spanish-language interview on Facebook.
“Derek Jeter. How many Gold Gloves did he win? Five. I think he won five. Derek Jeter did not deserve any of them,” Correa said on “Me Gustan Los Deportes” (“I Like Sports”), a Facebook Live show hosted by former major leaguer Carlos Baerga. “You know how much Derek Jeter’s (DRS was) in his career? Negative 160. In his career. But your eyes can lie to you.”
Then again, perhaps the line is another argument for signing Correa — for New York, Detroit or wherever — as it demonstrated a focus on defense and his knowledge of advanced defensive metrics.
If the Yankees, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, among other teams reportedly seeking an upgrade at short, pass on paying Correa his expected $300 million, the Tigers would feel better about their chances of signing the two-time All-Star shortstop. At that point, Correa might value his relationship with Hinch more than the last dollar.
But big-market teams, such as the Yankees, commonly end up getting the player they want. If that’s Correa, the Tigers might not be able to keep up financially, so they’ll continue to entertain other ideas to fix the shortstop position.
The worst-case scenario, though, is all five top-tier shortstops sign elsewhere, leaving the Tigers to find a different path to fill their void.
It’s too soon to tell if that will happen.
But some answers should be revealed in the coming week.