The issue that will come to dominate this MLB offseason is—and should be—the expiring collective bargaining agreement. A lockout would end nearly three decades of labor peace and bring all baseball activity to a halt, so it makes sense to be concerned about it.
But until that possibility becomes a reality, it’s also worth taking a moment to marvel at this year’s free agent class. Among the players looking for new deals are former MVPs Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant, as well as Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander—the three acceptable answers to the question, “Who is the best pitcher of the 2000s?”
Then there are the shortstops. One of the hardest things to find when building a baseball team is an impact bat at an up-the-middle position; this offseason, any of Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, or Javy Báez can be had for cash and draft-pick compensation. Even with Francisco Lindor and Brandon Crawford off the market after signing extensions during the year, this is the most attractive shortstop free agent group in at least a decade. So let’s see who brings what to the table, how they stack up against each other, and where these big names might end up.
1. Carlos Correa
Correa and the Astros never really got that close to signing a long-term contract extension before the season ended. Negotiations stalled out this spring when the Astros tried to pay Correa based on his recent injury history rather than his current or future value. And while Houston upped its bid to five years and $160 million after losing the World Series, that offer was both puzzling and doomed from the outset.
Correa hit .279/.366/.485 this season. His 134 wRC+ would have been third among MLB left fielders this year, and it bears repeating that he can provide that middle-of-the-order production while playing good defense at shortstop. But the biggest selling point for Correa—as well as Seager—is youth. Throughout MLB history, only eight players have signed contracts worth $300 million or more in total value, and all were 29 or younger when they signed. Five of those eight contracts kicked in when the player was in his age-27 season or younger, as Correa will be next year. And Seager is just five months older than Correa.
So the AAV on Houston’s offer—$32 million—is in the right ballpark. If Manny Machado is worth $30 million a year and Lindor is worth $34.1 million a year, Correa ought to get paid something similar. But both of those players got 10-year deals because they hit free agency (or in Lindor’s case, were due to hit free agency) relatively young.
Long-term free agent contracts price in the risk of a player declining over the course of the deal. A player like Correa is worth way more than $32 million for 2022 alone, but likely far less than $32 million a year by the time he’s in his late 30s. Tacking on extra years allows a team to guarantee a player more money total while paying less up front.
With a 27-year-old like Correa, the risk on a five-year contract is next to nil. At the end of that deal, Correa would be the same age Freeman is now, almost to the day, and Freeman’s reportedly looking for six years and $200 million on his next contract. If Correa’s only getting five years’ worth of guaranteed money, the AAV should start with a four.
As for where Correa could go: The Astros’ recent offers don’t seem to indicate a serious interest in re-signing their franchise shortstop. The Yankees have money and a need at the position, since it doesn’t seem that Gleyber Torres is the long-term solution there defensively. But just this week, Correa—who’s already not popular in the Big Apple after all that sign-stealing business—said Derek Jeter didn’t deserve any of his Gold Gloves, which is up there with “I don’t get what the fuss is about bodegas” on a list of statements that will alienate New Yorkers but are nevertheless true. One trendy destination is Detroit, a team that’s on the rise in a weak division and has just signed a top free agent pitcher in Eduardo Rodríguez. Plus, Tigers manager AJ Hinch and Correa go way back, as Hinch managed Correa for the first five years of his MLB career in Houston.
2. Corey Seager
In many respects, the question of Correa versus Seager comes down to intuition and preference. They’re the same age, with similar offensive profiles: more bat and less legs than you’d expect from a shortstop, and less swing-and-miss than you’d expect from a hitter with 25-homer, 40-double power. Yes, Seager has outhit Correa over the past two seasons (.306/.381/.545 to .275/.355/.458). But in a healthy free agent market, both could expect to get Machado money, if not more.
The differentiators between the two, for me, are health and defense. Seager has spent time on the IL in three of the past four seasons for injuries to a variety of joints, bones, and muscles. Correa hasn’t exactly been Cal Ripken Jr. either, so this isn’t a make-or-break issue, but his injuries are slightly further in the past.
Defensively, however it’s another story. Correa, despite his size and lack of top-end speed, has developed into a very solid defensive shortstop, with good hands and a ludicrous arm. Seager, on the other hand, occasionally looks a bit like a newborn wildebeest in the field. Correa ought to be a shortstop for the next five years at least, and after that he could become an exceptional defensive third baseman. Seager might have to move off the position in the next few years, and he could be a corner outfielder by his mid-30s. I’d still sign him to a 10-year deal, however, because the bat is that good.
With the Dodgers set to build around Gavin Lux and Trea Turner up the middle, Seager also looks bound for a new home. The Rangers, managed by former Dodgers coach Chris Woodward, would provide a similar narrative arc as Correa and Detroit—though while Texas has plenty of money, it’s much farther from contention. Beyond that, Seager makes sense on any contender with a need at short or third: the Yankees; Phillies; perhaps the Brewers, if they feel like spending; or the Nats or Cubs, if they feel like kick-starting their rebuilds early.
3. Marcus Semien
Semien got most of his action this year at second base, where he partnered with Bo Bichette and hit 45 home runs and 39 doubles, and stole 15 bases in 16 attempts. This was just the 16th time in MLB history that a second baseman has recorded 80 or more extra-base hits in a season, with five of those coming from Rogers Hornsby, and just the fifth time a second baseman had a 40-homer season.
Between his exceptional offensive production, elite baserunning, and Gold Glove defense, Semien had the best 2021 season of any free agent position player. MVP voting bears that out: Semien is the only free agent shortstop to be an MVP finalist this year, his second top-three finish in the past three seasons.
So why is Semien ranked behind Correa and Seager? Age. Semien is four years older than Correa and three and a half years older than Seager. Not only is that a huge chunk of a big-money free agent contract, but all things being equal, we’d expect a player in his late 20s to perform better than a player in his early-to-mid 30s. The last second baseman to reach the 40-homer or 80-XBH mark—and the only one to do so with anything like Semien’s baserunning record—was Brian Dozier in 2016. In fact, Dozier’s 2016 was eerily similar to Semien’s 2021 from a statistical perspective. And Dozier, who was a year younger at the time than Semien is now, went on to have just one more above-average MLB season before he retired five years after his historic campaign. Semien, with his longer track record, should age better than Dozier, but the former Twins All-Star illustrates the downside of counting on an up-the-middle player to keep producing into his mid-30s.
If there’s any justice, Semien will play out the rest of his prime in Toronto, where he was a perfect fit in an electrifying Blue Jays offense and approached near-cult-hero status during his one season with the team. Any franchise that misses out on Correa and Seager and has a window of contention open right now would be lucky to get Semien—but the Blue Jays would be foolish to let him walk.
4. Trevor Story
A year ago, even before Lindor signed his extension, there was a credible argument to be made that Story was the most attractive shortstop in this free agent class. From 2018 to 2020, Story was first in bWAR among all MLB shortstops, fourth in OPS+, and second in defensive WAR. He had two 35-homer seasons, led the NL in stolen bases in 2020, and played solid defense at one of the most difficult positions on the diamond. Playing for a dysfunctional team in a remote market, Story didn’t generate anywhere near the level of press that Correa, Seager, Lindor, or Báez did. But few could match him in terms of sheer production.
Story was never going to be in line for a Machado-level megadeal, given that he turned 29 in November, but coming off last season, it seemed fair to assume that he’d command $30 million a year over six or seven years without breaking a sweat.
But while Semien and Correa in particular put on laser shows in 2021, Story was merely good. And his statistical record—4.2 bWAR, .251/.329/.471 batting line, 20 stolen bases—looks better than the headlines. As a superstar on the last year of his deal with a fourth-place team, Story seemed like a shoo-in to be traded to a contender at this year’s deadline. But the Rockies held onto him, leaving the two-time All-Star to express his confusion to the press. And even though Story had a good year in absolute terms, it was a step back from his level in the previous three campaigns.
If Story wants to be really aggressive, he could do what Semien did last year or Josh Donaldson did the year before: take a one-year deal with a contender, then ring the bell in free agency come the fall. It’s more likely, though, that he ends up as a fallback option for a team that fails to sign Correa, Seager, or Semien.
5. Javier Báez
Báez, like Story, has had a rough go of it the past couple of years. He was one of the worst players in all of baseball in 2020, playing every day despite hitting .203/.238/.360. And while he rebounded in 2021, he still walked just 28 times against an NL-leading 184 strikeouts. Then there’s the thumb incident, and the coincidence of his arrival with the Mets’ season-ruining tailspin, though Báez himself hit very well in New York on the whole.
With that said, he’s still a plus defender at second, third, or short. He’ll still only be 29 next year, and even with all the drama and strikeouts, he hit 31 home runs and slugged .494 last season. Squint and you can see the outlines of his MVP runner-up campaign in 2018, when he hit 34 home runs and slugged .554, or his 2019 season, in which he hit 29 home runs and slugged .531.
Even at his best, though, Báez is only about as good as the other four shortstops on this list are in an average year. He’s the only one who doesn’t really have the potential to carry an offense, and his consistent lack of on-base ability is a weakness even when all other aspects of his game are strong. But he’d be more than good enough to fit in as a secondary piece in a lineup like the White Sox or either New York team, and his time with Lindor—both in New York and in the 2017 World Baseball Classic—delivered a tantalizing snapshot of how much fun he could be with a good double-play partner. That makes a return to the Mets an attractive destination from a neutral perspective.
In a normal free agent class, Báez would be among the very top infielders. The fact that he’s something of a consolation prize in this group—to say nothing of Chris Taylor or Eduardo Escobar—speaks to how easy it’s going to be for contending teams to upgrade up the middle this offseason, if they’re truly interested in contending.