Just days after the conclusion of the World Series, MLB’s general managers are beginning their annual meetings, firing up what might be a disjointed hot stove season.
Collective bargaining agreement negotiations and the threat of a work stoppage on Dec. 2 loom over baseball’s offseason, but stars will be signed and rosters will be filled.
A loaded shortstop class is the headlining act of a free agent pool that poses a litany of stimulating, almost philosophical questions about which types of players to bet on. So, we figured a game of “Would you rather?” could help you sort through your own GM tendencies — or at least figure out where to place your hopes for your favorite team.
To inform the hypotheticals, we’ll be using the median crowdsourced contract projections from FanGraphs as a guide for what each free agent is likely to command on the market.
Carlos Correa or Corey Seager?
Correa contract projection: 8 years, $240 million ($30 million average annual value)
Seager contract projection: 7 years, $196 million ($28 million AAV)
First things first: Which top-of-the-line shortstop should be the first priority? From 30,000 feet, their careers have been quite similar. Bat-first stardom at the precious shortstop position interrupted by injuries but punctuated by postseason heroics.
A core member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Corey Seager missed more than two months of the 2021 season with a broken hand, where Correa is coming off a full 148-game, 640-plate appearance season with his Houston Astros. Whether it’s that recency bias — or perhaps because his biggest injury in the majors was a strange off-field fluke situation involving a massage — Correa seems to get the nod in the popular consciousness for being less injury-prone. But there is not actually a lot of daylight here if you look beyond the sample of 2021.
Taken cumulatively, their last three seasons … have been freakishly similar. They have the precise same number of plate appearances (1,182). Correa has 52 homers and 176 RBIs to Seager’s 50 homers and 185 RBIs. Correa has a .276 batting average and a .356 on-base percentage to Seager’s .290 average and .360 OBP. Correa both walks and strikes out a touch more than Seager, but their discipline profiles are similar. Correa is five months younger. Seager bats left-handed.
The stat lines, though, diverge when you get to defense. Correa has routinely been rated as a strong defender at shortstop, while Seager has dipped to average or below in recent seasons. By Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, Correa has been the sixth-best shortstop defender in baseball over the past three years, while Seager is 20th — and a smidge below average.
Many evaluators think Seager’s future — perhaps imminently depending on his team’s roster — is at third base. He’ll probably be a solid or better defender there, but the hot corner is a less premium position.
Add in Correa’s charisma and Face of the Franchise vibes, and he is the clear choice for a team in need of a true shortstop despite that Astros sign-stealing stigma. Fans will forget that quickly when he’s leading their team to the playoffs.
Carlos Correa or Marcus Semien + another contributor?
Correa contract projection: 8 years, $240 million ($30 million AAV)
Semien contract projection: 4 years, $92 million ($23 million AAV)
So, the appeal of Correa is apparent. If your team is looking to make a splash and announce its presence, there are few players more suited to the role than Correa. But any team fishing in this pond likely has serious competitive ambitions and more than one roster spot to upgrade.
That’s where Marcus Semien comes in.
(Every MLB team owner could back up the truck for Correa and also spend on other talent, but we know that most decline to break the bank or eclipse the competitive balance tax. So, from a fan’s point of view in this exercise, it’s worth considering the options that might realistically open the best path to winning, even if reality is boxed in by excessively tight, anti-competitive purse strings.)
The main reason it will be cheaper to woo Semien is his age. He’s 31, having taken a one-year pillow contract for 2021 to prove that a down 2020 was a mirage. He won that bet on himself in a big way. For the second time in three years, he will finish in the top three in AL MVP voting. Two of his past three seasons would be — by FanGraphs’ WAR — the best of Correa’s career.
However, defensive metrics are split on Semien’s prowess at shortstop, and he played second base during his stellar 2021 with the Toronto Blue Jays in deference to Bo Bichette. Projection systems are also not sold on Semien actually hitting like Correa even in 2022, before age concerns really take effect. There’s a reason he needed the pillow contract: Outside of 2019 and 2021, he has been a remarkably consistent hitter in a not great way — checking in just below league average in every other season of his career by wRC+, the park-adjusted metric of offensive production.
If you want to talk about the durability concerns at the tippy top of the shortstop class, though, Semien is the antidote. He has missed a total of eight games in the past four seasons.
Ultimately, targeting Semien instead of Correa requires affirmative answers to two questions:
1) Do you think Semien will mostly replicate his 2019 and 2021 performance for at least the next two or three seasons?
2) Are the savings enough to significantly improve the rest of your offseason moves?
I’m willing to buy Semien’s offensive gains, and though I think he’s best suited for second base, that’s a very good player for the next few seasons. The second question is trickier. The gap in annual salary may not be all that great between Correa and Semien — probably $10 million at the most, which won’t lure any front-line pitchers or middle-of-the-order bats on its own. So the real difference is in the long-term commitment.
That makes it more of a situational choice as opposed to a pure comparison. Emerging teams like the Detroit Tigers or Seattle Mariners who view themselves as being on the cusp of a run of contention are likely better suited going after Correa. But teams with less wide open roads ahead — either talent-wise or financially — could have good reason to take aim at Semien. He may be a better fit for the Los Angeles Angels, Philadelphia Phillies or the San Francisco Giants should they decide to flexibly upgrade their infield. Interestingly, the Blue Jays could fit in either category, and may well pony up to keep Semien in the fold.
Trevor Story or Javier Báez?
Story contract projection: 6 years, $150 million ($25 million AAV)
Báez contract projection: 4 years, $80 million ($20 million AAV)
Here we have two shortstops about to turn 29, somewhat unlucky to be hitting free agency in a winter where they are second-tier options at their position. We also have two shortstops that, despite power-speed combos that tantalize fantasy managers, have real risks associated with their forward-looking profiles in real life.
Thus far a career-long member of the Colorado Rockies, Trevor Story burst onto the scene in 2016 with historic rookie power numbers, and settled in after a sophomore slump as a down-ballot MVP candidate. But to peruse his numbers since 2018 is to watch a steady, if not calamitous, decline. His slugging percentage has dipped from an excellent .567 to just .471 in 2021. That’s still nothing to scoff at for a shortstop, but in Coors Field while getting on base at a worse than usual .329 clip, it amounted to just average production and a depressing contract year.
Of course, no one would blame Story for being confused or thrown off his game by the baffling Rockies front office in 2021. As he belatedly leaves the hitter-friendly confines of Coors, don’t expect that change to tank Story’s production. But it’s worth noting that the crowdsourced projection is a bit out of line with what more plugged-in prognosticators like FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens and ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel have projected — five years and $115 million.
Javier Báez experienced the trade everyone expected Story would in July — moving on from the only team he had known, the Chicago Cubs, to go play with the New York Mets. That went … dramatically. Báez is clearly a savant on the field, but often appears as though he has willfully forgotten that called balls and walks exist. He rebounded from a miserable 2020 with a more characteristic power-spiked .265/.319/.494 line in 2021.
And though he is a veritable magic eight ball of offensive outcomes, Báez’s defense is a pretty great constant. By Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he’s been the second-best infielder in baseball over the past three seasons behind only friend and 2021 teammate Francisco Lindor. Story, meanwhile, carries some risk that he may need to move off shortstop, as his defense drooped into negative territory by Statcast’s accounting in 2021.
In a way, I think the loud highs and lows for Báez distort how risky he really is. He will never morph into a disciplined hitter, but I do think his 2020 was a fluke. The underlying numbers show a hitter who routinely makes hard enough contact to post average or better numbers even while striking out way, way too much. That comes with upside as well as the downside that was put on display in 2020. The recent tribulations may even lead him to take a Semien-esque pillow contract to try to establish a more discernible pattern with the bat.
Either way he’s a virtual lock to cost less than Story in total, and I think there might be more to hang your hat on with Báez. He’s a wild card, absolutely, but a worthwhile one.