High marks for a 13-year contract? Grading Carlos Correa’s $350 million deal with Giants

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Under the front-office leadership of Farhan Zaidi, the San Francisco Giants have streamlined their payroll outlook in recent seasons while overhauling their organizational processes, revamping everything from how they develop pitchers to supplying manager Gabe Kapler with a horde of instructors better described as a faculty than a coaching staff.

The four-year transition from the Giants’ old methods to the Zaidi vision has been gradual and mixed, on the field, with two soft runs at a wild card, a franchise-record 107-win explosion in 2021, and a regression all the way back to .500 in 2022. Still, the story of the Zaidi/Kapler era is very much in medias res, with the future of their tale yet to be written. What we do know is that future is going to include Carlos Correa for a very long time.

Thirteen years. That’s quite a commitment, whether we’re talking baseball contracts, prison sentences or marriages. It’s a long, long time. If your kid is in kindergarten right now, that child will be a senior in high school when the Correa contract expires. Also, near the end of the pact, Correa will probably be getting to what will then be called Alcatraz Park via a self-driving hovercraft, the Miami Marlins will be playing in a ballpark built on stilts and half the population will subsist on a people-free version of Soylent Green.

Sorry if I’m getting a little dreamy about all this, but the recent trend of giving out contracts with lengths that would make Methuselah blush has set free agent analysis on its ear. You can’t help but wonder what it all means. I’m old enough to remember way back in, say, 2018, when a great free agent debate was whether a top player would get a fifth year on the market.

While the 13-year commitment to Correa is on its face eye-popping, the Giants’ offer is entirely coherent in the context of free agency this winter, the first regular hot stove season after the owners and players reached an accord on a new CBA last spring. The coherence of the deal is there, whether you’re looking at it from the player/agent’s point of view or that of the team.

First, let me just state that while I was operating without any sort of insider knowledge of Correa’s free agency, I was convinced that he would sign with the Giants when a rumor was floated by multiple respected MLB reporters on Monday that the Mets had entered the race to land his services. It’s the kind of late-breaking, nonsensical (at least until it turns out to be true) development that strongly suggests that an agent (in this case, some guy named Scott Boras) is very close to getting his preferred number for his player and just needs to fold in another competitor to get the deal done.

All things being equal, I thought the Twins had a good shot at retaining Correa if they could get in the same financial neighborhood of what the market had to offer the All-Star shortstop. Given the terms of the contract, it seems this isn’t a neighborhood Minnesota wanted to shop in. Which is kind of a shame, because last week, at the winter meetings in San Diego, the media session with Twins manager Rocco Baldelli was about 80% related to Correa praise, with Baldelli talking about how Correa had maintained close contact with everyone in the organization, from the hitting coaches to the young players on the roster.

That’s the kind of engagement that Correa brings to a team. To say he’s more cerebral when it comes to analytics than the typical player is an understatement. He will freely spout off metrics in conversation that other players don’t even know exist. He reportedly loves to offer input on everything from player development to roster building. Heck, maybe the Twins could have retained Correa if they had simply offered him the title of shortstop/assistant bench coach/assistant general manager.

That kind of player involvement isn’t necessarily for every organization, but given the culture of collaboration that Zaidi has created in San Francisco, Correa will fit right in. He will be the face of a franchise that needed one to take it into a future in which it balances Zaidi-driven efficiency with the kind of financial might that its market and ballpark allow, and it will help them keep pace with the Dodgers and Padres, division foes who aren’t going anywhere. (And don’t sleep on the Diamondbacks.)

As a player, Correa was my favorite free agent on the market, one who balances tremendous raw ability with a great track record, a relentless work ethic, oodles of leadership qualities, an age (28) that suggests he is going to remain elite for years to come and — not for nothing — a natural charisma that will make him easy to market. Correa does have a games-played ceiling of around 140 to 150, if you’re lucky, but that’s enough to keep him in the five-WAR range, more than enough to justify this kind of expenditure. And really, as consistent as Correa has been, the one thing missing in his track record is a true career season. When that happens, it will now be the Giants who benefit, and a Correa-level career season will be an MVP-worthy campaign.

There is nothing not to like about this deal, though I guess it’s worth pointing out that in terms of annual value, Correa will be taking a hefty cut, from the $35.1 million he earned during his lone season with the Twins to the $26.9 in average value his new deal offers. Over the long haul, Correa will make out just fine, to say the least.

And it is a long haul. Under the new CBA, teams are handing out longer-than-projected deals left and right, contracts with hefty price tags in terms of total value but still somewhat cap-friendly in terms of luxury-tax-related annual value. The use of “cap” here is intentional, because this kind of behavior in the market by MLB teams reminds me so much of how NBA clubs used to structure free agent deals to make them work under the soft-cap economic system under which that league operates.

The first name I thought of when I saw the Correa news was one from another sport: Raef LaFrentz. Remember him? The lanky center out of Kansas featured a coveted offensive strength for his position: the ability to knock down 3s, which he matched with an ability to protect the rim on defense via elite block rates. It’s the skill set of a role player, yet it was enough to land LaFrentz a seven-year contract worth $70 million in the NBA once his rookie contract expired.

Then LaFrentz started getting hurt, and the richer he became, the less on-court value he provided his teams. His contract eventually became one that was mostly just a trade asset, one used to match up salaries in a deal with little expectation from the acquiring team that LaFrentz would contribute on the court at the level his salary suggested was possible. During the last year of his contract, the 2008-09 season, LaFrentz was the second-highest-paid player for the Portland Trail Blazers, and he didn’t log a single minute of playing time.

This is the future of some of these MLB deals. Teams are stretching out the duration of them to drive down the annual values so that they can better navigate around the tax system in place. Correa, talented as he is, probably won’t be producing at an All-Star level — if he’s playing at all — when his deal extends to the 2033 season and beyond. He can’t be traded without his permission, but other than that, it’s an old NBA-style deal, one that you see in a cap-type system.

Is that bad? Ask me in 13 years. If baseball’s revenue figures continue to grow, having tens of millions of dead-money contracts on your books might not be a big deal for teams, especially those in the bigger markets. Correa’s $26.9 annual salary may end up being half that of the top salaries across the sport in a few years. If nothing else, these long, dizzying contracts are a tremendous expression of optimism about where baseball is headed in the future.

And that future in San Francisco is promising. Correa is the kind of cornerstone player on which championship teams are built. The Giants have spent four years building a foundation. While they still have roster work to do in a free agent market dwindling in elite options, they crossed off the No. 1 to-do item of their offseason — and the next few offseasons to come.

Grade: A

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