If you believe in sports curses, then you also probably believe that accursed teams must do something special to unhex themselves. If you dwell in the realm of rationality, you probably believe that long losing streaks result solely from poor process combined with lousy luck. Either way, the solution to the problem is to do something different from what’s failed before—to say “Fuck you, Jobu” and change your behavior in hopes of obtaining a happier outcome. I mention this because the Minnesota Twins have taken a stunning and (by Twins standards) expensive step to dispel their personal thundercloud: They’ve signed MLB’s best free agent, Carlos Correa, to a three-year, $105.3 million deal.
If there’s one thing the 21st-century Twins are known for, it’s losing 18 straight playoff games, the longest such streak in the history of North American pro sports. If there’s another thing they’re known for, it’s losing most of those games—13, to be precise, which is also a record—to the Yankees. In 2019, Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin floated a Bambino/Billy Goat/Colavito–esque origin story for the Twins’ futility against New York, noting that in 1964 the Twins signed a then-unknown 19-year-old Bronx baseballer named Rodney Cline Carew right under the Yankees’ noses—after a clandestine workout at Yankee Stadium, no less. Carew became the greatest Twin of all time. Decades later, Rushin facetiously suggested that the baseball gods were punishing the franchise for absconding with Carew, thereby depriving the Yankees of a 28th Hall of Famer (and perhaps a 28th championship). I’m not sure the Curse of Carew has caught on, but the Reverse Curse of Correa would be a fitting way to break it—especially because the Twins indirectly leveraged the Yankees’ money to make this signing happen.
Estimates of the odds of the Twins losing 18 straight playoff games have ranged from 1 in 28,000 to 1 in 262,144 to 1 in 69 billion. Take your pick: However improbable, it’s been painful. Losing a lot in the playoffs reflects better on a franchise than, say, never making the playoffs, but it’s still sufficient reason to try a fresh strategy. Signing a premier free agent qualifies as a new trick for the Twins. When ESPN analyzed the preceding decade in free-agent spending in December 2019, the Twins ranked 21st in total dollars committed and 25th in largest single contract signed—in their case, Ervin Santana’s four-year, $55 million deal from 2015, which remained a free-agent record for Minnesota until Correa nearly doubled its limit. The new number may be rich for the Twins’ taste, but it’s a bargain price for Correa.
Correa was MLB’s best-in-class free agent, a 27-year-old shortstop with a great glove and bat who’s coming off a career year in Houston. Because he made the majors as a fully formed hitter and has lost significant time to thumb, back, and rib injuries, Correa hasn’t delivered on the loftiest expectations set by his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2015. But he has hit about 30 percent better than the average batter over his seven-year career, and he does everything well on offense except steal (or skillfully run the) bases. Last year, he slashed .279/.366/.485, recording a career-high walk rate and a career-low strikeout rate (relative to the league) while setting a new high in home runs (26). He also set highs in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, taking home his first Gold Glove, Platinum Glove, and Fielding Bible Award. Most important, he stayed healthy. Though Correa missed only two games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he’s surpassed 500 plate appearances just twice in his career. But in 2021, he made 640 trips to the plate in 148 games, yielding 7.2 Baseball-Reference WAR (good for fourth in the majors) and a fifth-place finish in the AL MVP race.
Mark Berman, the Houston sports director who broke the Correa signing after midnight central time on Saturday, reported last November that the Astros had offered Correa a five-year contract worth $160 million. The expectation at the time was that Correa would sign a much longer and more lucrative deal, in line with the 10-year, roughly $340 million extensions that shortstops Francisco Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr. signed with the Mets and Padres, respectively, last spring. Earlier this week, the Astros restarted discussions with their former no. 1 overall draft pick and were expected to up their offer, but the Twins swooped in with a shorter-term, higher-average-annual-value contract that (per ESPN’s Jeff Passan) “came together quickly” on Friday.
Correa unquestionably could have made more overall: Prior to the lockout, the Tigers reportedly offered him a 10-year, $275 million deal that would have included three opt-outs and potentially lucrative incentives. Correa thought he could do better than fellow free agent Corey Seager, who signed a 10-year, $325 million contract with the Rangers, so he turned down the Tigers, who added Javier Báez instead. In the end, though, Correa opted for a contract that’s similar in structure to the three-year, $102 million deal that Trevor Bauer signed with the Dodgers last year. Like Bauer, Correa obtained opt-outs after the first and second years, though Correa’s pact, unlike Bauer’s, isn’t frontloaded.
The shortstop stands to make $35.1 million per year, which trails only Mike Trout’s $36 million AAV among position players. Given the short term of the deal and the low risk to the team, though, it’s shocking that the AAV isn’t higher. ZiPS projects Correa to amass about 14 WAR over the next three seasons—which yields a valuation almost identical to the Twins’—though in light of the opt-outs, he’s unlikely to generate that type of production while remaining under the Twins’ control. If he leaves, it will likely be of his own volition: The contract reportedly includes a limited no-trade clause for 2022 and a full no-trade clause thereafter. (If Correa does depart after 2022 or 2023, shortstop prospect Royce Lewis may be ready to replace him.)
So why didn’t the 10-year contract Correa was coveting materialize? Perhaps he and his representatives slightly misread the market; the shortstop switched agencies in January, hiring Scott Boras to get his deal done. (Some reporters have suggested that because Correa’s former agency could claim a large cut of any contract Correa signed, Boras might benefit more from a short-term deal and a later, long-term payday, though it seems unlikely that Correa would make a call based on what’s best for Boras, or that Boras would advise him to.) And the list of teams he was linked to quickly shrunk: With Seager, Marcus Semien, and Baéz spoken for, the Dodgers opted for Freddie Freeman as their infield upgrade; the Phillies doubled down on defensively challenged sluggers; the Cubs spent on pitcher Marcus Stroman and outfielder Seiya Suzuki; the Orioles (who had been tenuously connected to Correa) downplayed the possibility of signing, well, anyone; and the Yankees seemingly lost interest (more on that in a moment). With less than three weeks left before the lockout-delayed Opening Day, Correa may have decided that he’s better off posting another strong season (and banking more than he’s made in his career to date) in 2022 and testing the market again next year, when he could be the best and youngest shortstop in a weaker crop.
The seeds of the signing were planted last week, when the Twins traded Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and catcher Ben Rordvedt to the Yankees for Gio Urshela and Gary Sánchez. The departure of Kiner-Falefa, whom Minnesota had acquired from the Rangers a day earlier, left the Twins without a substitute for free-agent shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who subsequently signed with the Cubs; Jorge Polanco, the nominal replacement, is much more suited to second base. By offloading Donaldson, who’s due $50 million over the rest of his deal, Minnesota saved a net sum of roughly $42 million in future financial commitments. Many Twins fans wondered whether that move, which left the Twins’ payroll almost $30 million short of their 2021 total, might presage a Trevor Story signing. Far fewer allowed themselves to set their sights on Correa.
The Twins didn’t sign Correa just to avoid a postseason sweep for the first time since 2004. There’s also the small matter of making the playoffs, which even the Correa-reinforced Twins don’t yet appear to be in prime position to do. The problem is pitching—specifically starting pitching. The Twins traded José Berríos to the Blue Jays at last year’s deadline and then lost Kenta Maeda to Tommy John surgery and Michael Pineda to free agency, leaving them light on the mound. The Twins have made major splashes this winter by breaking the piggy bank for Correa and signing Byron Buxton—whom they selected with the second pick in Correa’s draft class—to a seven-year extension, but Dylan Bundy is the best starter they’ve signed, and 2021 rookies Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober are the rotation’s most talented holdovers. Even after acquiring Sonny Gray from the Reds on Sunday, the Twins rank 21st in projected WAR from their starting staff.
This is the Twins' sixth offseason with Derek Falvey and Thad Levine at the helm and they've yet to sign a free agent pitcher to a contract worth more than $20 million.— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) March 19, 2022
MLB-wide context: 17 free agent pitchers have signed deals worth at least $20 million this offseason alone.
The Twins can field, and they should really rake: According to the FanGraphs depth charts, every Minnesota starting position player (plus infield prospect Jose Miranda) projects to be above average with the bat, a distinction that the Dodgers and Blue Jays can claim too. But the Twins lack the arms of the other offensive juggernauts, which could keep them out of the October tournament. As a .500-ish squad, the Twins sit in the sweet spot for getting the most marginal gain from each additional W. Prior to this signing, FanGraphs put Minnesota about 10 projected wins behind the AL Central favorite White Sox and gave the Twins a 25 percent shot of qualifying for the expanded, 12-team field. (Baseball Prospectus estimated an eight-win gap and put their postseason chances at 44.2 percent.) After the signing, the FanGraphs-projected gulf between the White Sox and Twins has shrunk to 7.5 wins, and the Twins’ playoff probability has climbed to 35 percent—still too shaky for comfort. Correa is a career .272/.344/.505 playoff hitter and boasts the third-highest career postseason Win Probability Added of all time, but he can’t propel the Twins to their first postseason series victory in 20 years unless he has help getting to October.
Correa’s sliding stops can save only so many runs. The best free-agent starters still available—Johnny Cueto? Chris Archer? Zach Davies?—would hardly move the needle from a run-prevention standpoint, so it’s almost imperative that the Twins pry Sean Manaea or Frankie Montas away from the fireselling A’s. They’ve reportedly been trying to do just that. Manaea is in line to earn approximately $10 million via arbitration in 2022, with Montas slated to receive about $5 million. The Twins have never been big spenders, but they may budge beyond their current, 20th-ranked projected payroll total of $129 million, which is just below the franchise-record figure they had committed to spend in 2020 before the season was slashed.
The Yankees may be in the market for Manaea and Montas too, but they seemingly sat out the Correa sweepstakes. Whether out of junior-Steinbrenner austerity, a reluctance to block top prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, lingering bitterness about Correa’s participation in the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme (and disses of Derek Jeter’s defense), or some combination of all of the above, the Yankees never behaved like serious suitors. The Yankees decided to spend about $43 million on Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo, and Kiner-Falefa instead of distributing, say, $47 million to Correa, Urshela, and Luke Voit (assuming Correa would have accepted the same deal). Maybe it will work out—even in an increasingly competitive AL East, the Yankees have a better shot at October than the Twins. But barring a buzzer-beating Story signing, they’ll start the season with multiple low-offense slots in their lineup, and their demanding fans are already roasting their decision to reconstruct their infield without acquiring Correa, Seager, Freeman, or Matt Olson.
The Astros, meanwhile, watch another cornerstone of their post-tanking success walk after making little effort to keep George Springer last offseason or Gerrit Cole the winter before that. The biggest free-agent contract the Astros have handed out under Jim Crane is even smaller than the Twins’ biggest before Correa’s: Josh Reddick’s four-year, $52 million deal from 2016. The Astros went cheap in replacing Springer (which worked out fine for them last year), and unless they sign Story, they’ll do the same at shortstop this year, entrusting the position to top prospect Jeremy Peña. The 24-year-old Peña slugged almost .600 at Triple-A last year and is reputed to be a plus defender, so he may give Houston a modest fraction of Correa’s production for an infinitesimal fraction of the cost. Aside from re-signing Justin Verlander (who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery), though, the Astros have done almost nothing to reinforce their roster. On the offensive side, only Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel remain from the talented but tainted 2017 title winners, but the Astros are still easily the strongest team in the AL West. However, now that Correa is gone, fans of the Astros’ rivals can hold out some amount of hope.
And so can fans of the Twins, who for once wound up making Yankees supporters sad instead of the reverse. Improbably and lamentably (for them), the Twins have gone 38-100 against the Yankees in the regular season and postseason combined since 2003, the year when the Yankees started their streak of six consecutive victories in playoff series against Minnesota. In a 162-game season, that .275-winning-percentage pace would produce 45 wins, which would be the lowest non-2020 total of any team since the 2003 Tigers. Yet over the same span, the Twins went 1453-1410 (.508) against all other teams combined. The Yankees are their kryptonite, and so it must be sweet for Twins fans that their team used the Yankees’ deeper pockets to free up cash for Correa—and that the Urshela-Correa left side of the infield that many Yankees fans (if not the Yankees brass) envisioned will be playing in Minneapolis instead of the Bronx. It doesn’t make up for decades of submission, but it’s a start. Fuck you, Jobu.
This piece originally mischaracterized Josh Reddick’s free-agent contract. It was the largest under Jim Crane, not the largest in Astros franchise history.