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Orioles free agent target: Carlos Correa

Correa links to Mike Elias’ time in Houston, and his on-field ability make the shortstop an interesting free agent target if the O’s are looking to add star power to their lineup.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When trying to answer the question “Who might the Orioles target in free agency?”, it’s easy to gravitate to former members of the Astros organization. Orioles GM Mike Elias’ connection to Houston is unavoidable and, in many ways, the O’s have become the Astros 2.0. Undoubtedly, the biggest name among a group of former Astros is free-agent shortstop Carlos Correa.

After signing a three-year deal with the Twins in March, Correa hits the free agent market again this offseason after exercising his first-year opt-out. The former No. 1 overall pick, Platinum Glove winner and World Series champion will certainly be looking to cash in on a longer-term deal after going the short-term route with Minnesota last offseason.

His numbers from his season in the Twin Cities—.291 average, .834 OPS, 22 HRs and 64 RBIs—don’t necessarily jump off the page. However, Correa’s value in multiple facets of the game is undeniable. Per FanGraphs, Correa led all major league shortstops in Weighted Runs Created Plus and finished second to Xander Bogaerts in Weighted On-Base Average. More simply put, Correa consistently puts the ball in play, gets on base and keeps an offense moving and producing.

That’s not to mention Correa’s value in the field. Winner of the 2021 Platinum Glove as the American League’s best all-around defender, Correa has consistently shown well above-average ability at one of baseball’s most valuable defensive positions. Over the last five seasons, Correa ranks fifth among all major league shortstops in Outs Above Average—meaning he gets to more balls than just about any shortstop in the bigs. Combine that with an arm that consistently ranks as one of the strongest at his position, and Correa paints a picture of an elite big-league shortstop.

That’s the word that keeps coming up when talking about Correa: consistency. While his highs may not represent the most exciting ceiling, his lows are few and far in between. As Ben Clemens of Fangraphs put it in ranking Correa as this year’s third-best free agent:

At this point in his career, you mostly know what you’re getting with Correa offensively: he’ll walk a lot, rarely strike out, and hit for both power and average. His consistency is enviable.

The question when it comes to Correa and the Orioles is not whether he’d make this Baltimore team better (he would) but rather how he’d fit in this suddenly very crowded Orioles infield. Every defensive inning in Correa’s big league career has come at SS. For teams that are in need of someone to lead their infield defense, this is perhaps a plus for Correa. For teams like the Orioles, who recently discovered they have an elite defensive shortstop already on the roster, this lack of versatility presents as a potential downside.

While Jorge Mateo may have a much shorter track record at the position than Correa, there’s no denying that he was the better defensive shortstop in 2022. When it comes to Outs Above Average, Mateo posted a +11 to Correa’s -3. Mateo also led all major league shortstops in field chances at 615, while Correa was more middle of the pack at 472. Part of that may be attributed to time Correa missed with a finger injury, but no matter how you slice it Mateo came out on top as a defender at short.

While there is no doubt Correa offers a much better bat than Mateo has shown to this point, completely kicking the AL’s stolen base leader and Orioles’ defensive ace to the curb in favor of Correa seems unlikely. Mateo does offer much more defensive versatility than the former Astro and Twin, so it’s not hard to imagine Mateo shifting to second base in favor of Correa at short. That’s far from a perfect fit, though, as it would mean either benching 2022 Gold Glove-winner Ramon Urias in favor of Gunnar Henderson at third or shifting Henderson to play primarily 1B.

The other problem Correa presents is the salary and length of contract he’s likely to demand. Clemens projects that Correa, as a relatively young free agent at age 28, could receive a deal as high as 10 years in total length. With the star shortstop also likely to command north of $30M/year, it’s fair to question whether the value of that contract might price the Orioles out of Correa’s market.

While Elias & Co. have committed to spending more in the 22-23 offseason than they have previously, spending $30M+ per year on a player that doesn’t naturally fit in the Orioles’ current roster may be stretching things too far. Sure, the sentiment of Elias reuniting with the player who filled the Adley Rutschman role in the Astros rebuild makes for a great story. However, sentiment shouldn’t rule the Orioles’ decision-making process in what feels like the most important offseason in Baltimore baseball for over a decade.

There’s little doubt that adding Correa would improve the Orioles’ roster going into 2023. He would provide the middle-of-order bat the O’s were often lacking in ‘22 and a measure of offensive consistency that was sorely missed at many points last season. If Correa is once again in the market for a similar short-term deal that he signed in Minnesota last offseason, then perhaps the Orioles become a more realistic candidate for his services.

However, Correa presents enough downsides to signing him that it’s worth questioning whether he should be on the Orioles’ shopping list. Between the opportunity cost of taking away playing time from Mateo and/or Henderson (as well the wealth of infield prospects in the O’s organization) and the likely need for Baltimore to completely break the bank to sign him, these drawbacks seem big enough for the Orioles to take themselves out of this race.

Paying $30M+ per year for a starting pitcher would be a way to fill a gigantic need. Paying $30M+ to Correa feels a bit like a luxury. As much as the Orioles have improved their position in the MLB’s greater hierarchy, the Birds don’t feel like a team ready or willing to make luxury signings.